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College Football's Most Improved Teams for 2022

Athlon Sports logo Athlon Sports 8/9/2022 Steven Lassan

A complete breakdown and prediction on college football's most improved teams for 2022.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports © Provided by Athlon Sports Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Whether it's a surprise team or a program that is significantly better than most expected, every college football season has its share of teams that improved in a big way from the previous year. The 2022 season is no different, as there are plenty of obvious candidates to take a big step forward in wins, including USC, Texas, Nebraska, and Miami. Additionally, new coach Billy Napier should help get Florida back on track, while in-state rival Florida State seems poised to make a bowl in coach Mike Norvell's third year. In the Group of 5 ranks, don't be surprised if Boise State returns to the top of the Mountain West. Southern Miss had terrible luck in coach Will Hall's first year but is poised to rebound in '22.

Which teams are poised to improve in 2022? Whether it's a jump in wins or just being more competitive, Athlon Sports projects which programs will make that jump this fall:

College Football's Most Improved Teams for 2022

Akron

Over/Under Win Projections:

2.5 (DraftKings)

2021 Record: 2-10 (1-7 MAC)

What Went Wrong in 2021: Tom Arth’s tenure at Akron ended during the 2021 season, as the Zips posted their fifth losing season in six years. Both sides of the ball struggled mightily. The offense finished 12th in scoring, and the defense gave up 39.5 points a game to rank last in the MAC. Only two of the team’s 10 losses were decided by one score.

Why to Expect Improvement: New coach Joe Moorhead is one of the top hires from this year’s carousel. Additionally, his background on offense should play well in the MAC, especially after the team added a handful of transfers at the skill spots to help quarterback DJ Irons. Moorhead also hit the portal for help on defense to bolster a unit that struggled mightily and gave up nearly 250 rushing yards a game (248.9 to be exact) in ’21.

Remaining Concerns: Akron should improve thanks to Moorhead’s arrival and a bolstered roster. However, as indicated by the results in 2021, this team has a long climb to the top of the MAC East.

Schedule Note: Catching Northern Illinois and Central Michigan in crossover play is tough, but Akron has enough winnable games at home on its MAC schedule to easily hit the over.

Prediction: 5th in the MAC East, 4-8 overall

Boise State

Over/Under Win Projections:

9 (DraftKings)

2021 Record: 7-5 (5-3 Mountain West)

What Went Wrong in 2021: A 7-5 record isn't necessarily bad, but the expectations are certainly higher at Boise State. Surprisingly, the offense (29.2 points a game and 5.3 yards per play) was the problem. The Broncos failed to generate big plays, struggled up front and ranked ninth in the Mountain West in rushing offense (120.4 ypg). Three of the team's five losses came by one score, so this squad wasn't far from a trip to the conference title game.

Why to Expect Improvement: The Broncos seemed to improve as the year went on under new coach Andy Avalos. Also, when things were clicking, this team showed the ability to dominate its top conference foes, crushing eventual Mountain West champ Utah State 27-3 in September and beating Fresno State 40-14. If running back George Holani can stay healthy, and a line that brings back three starters improves, the ground game should get a boost. Boise State's defense returns eight starters off a unit that held teams to 19 points a game in '21.

Remaining Concerns: Avalos and offensive coordinator Tim Plough need to help quarterback Hank Bachmeier elevate his play another notch and address the line and ground attack. Receiver Khalil Shakir will be missed. The defense is expected to be strong again, but Avalos needs better play from his linebackers and in the pass rush off the edge.

 

Schedule Note: A handful of Boise State's swing games - San Diego State, Fresno State, BYU and Utah State - come at home. However, a trip to Air Force on Oct. 22 could decide the division crown.

Prediction: 1st in the Mountain West's Mountain Division, 9-3 overall

Related: Ranking All 131 College Football Teams for 2022

Florida

Over/Under Win Projections:

7 (DraftKings)

2021 Record: 6-7 (2-6 SEC)

What Went Wrong in 2021: Despite a close call against Alabama on Sept. 18, things quickly spiraled downhill for Florida just a year after winning the SEC East Division title. The Gators lost five out of their last seven games, and one of the two victories in that stretch was a come-from-behind win over FCS Samford (70-52). Inconsistent play at quarterback and turnovers (21 lost) were two driving forces behind last year's regression, but the defense (26.8 points a game allowed) was also a problem. Also, Dan Mullen and his staff needed to recruit better to avoid some of the drop off from '20.

Why to Expect Improvement: New coach Billy Napier turned around Louisiana in his four years at the helm, and that experience, combined with previous stints under Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney as an assistant make him the right fit in Gainesville. Napier's attention to detail and organization will pay off away in the overall team development and performance. Quarterback Anthony Richardson is a rising star and should benefit from Napier's tutelage right away. O'Cyrus Torrence is an impact transfer along the offensive line. Although there are holes to fill on defense, a healthy Ventrell Miller at linebacker, along with the arrival of new coordinator Patrick Toney should generate improvement out of this group. 

 

Remaining Concerns: Can Richardson translate his upside and potential into production? The Gators need better play from their offensive line and the receiving corps could use more overall consistency. Arizona State transfer Ricky Pearsall is a name to watch on the outside. Overall improvement on defense is needed. Stopping the run (10th in the SEC in 2021) and a pass rush (20 sacks in SEC play) are two areas of focus this offseason.

Schedule Note: The crossover slate (LSU and at Texas A&M) and the non-conference schedule (Utah and at Florida State) limits the upside of the win total. However, the first two games of the year - Utah and Kentucky - will provide an early glimpse into just how far this team has improved under Napier.

Prediction: 4th in the SEC East, 7-5 overall

Related: College Football Bowl Projections for 2022-23

Florida State

Over/Under Win Projections: 6.5 (DraftKings)

2021 Record: 5-7 (4-4 ACC)

What Went Wrong in 2021: The Seminoles started 0-4 – including a brutal loss to FCS Jacksonville State – but rallied to finish 5-3 over the final eight games. Coach Mike Norvell didn’t inherit a team ready to challenge for the ACC title, so this program is still in rebuild mode and last year’s performance reflected that. A struggling offensive line and a lack of difference-makers on the outside contributed to the offense averaging 24.5 points in ACC games.

Why to Expect Improvement: Florida State improved throughout ’21, so there’s optimism that should carry into this year. Keeping quarterback Jordan Travis healthy is a priority after the team averaged 32.8 points in his eight starts, compared to 17 in the other four. A couple of transfers bolstered the receiving corps, and the ’22 version of Florida State’s offensive line is the best this program has had in some time. A strong foundation is in place on defense (seven returning starters) after this unit improved throughout ’21.

Remaining Concerns: Replacing the edge production from Jermaine Johnson II and Keir Thomas (combined for 18 of the team’s 33 sacks) won’t be easy. How big of a step forward will the line make? And will the additions at receiver deliver once the season starts?

Schedule Note: The Seminoles are improving, but the schedule isn’t easy and might limit the team’s win total upside. Swing games against Louisville, NC State and Miami are on the road. Also, the non-conference slate features LSU (in New Orleans) and Florida.

Prediction: 4th in the ACC Atlantic, 7-5 overall

LSU

Over/Under Win Projections:

7 (DraftKings)

2021 Record: 6-7 (3-5 SEC)

What Went Wrong in 2021: The start of the ’21 season was a continuation of 2020 when LSU finished a disappointing 5-5 coming off of an undefeated national championship campaign. The Tigers were dominated along the line of scrimmage in a 38-27 loss at UCLA and needed wins over ULM and Texas A&M in late November just to get bowl eligible. The defense played better later in the year but still allowed 26.6 points a game and the loss of cornerbacks Eli Ricks and Derek Stingley Jr. pushed the pass defense to 12th in efficiency in the SEC. LSU struggled to get a push on the ground (3.3 yards per carry), while the line surrendered 38 sacks.

Why to Expect Improvement: The coaching change from Ed Orgeron to Brian Kelly is a plus for LSU and should bring much-needed stability at the top. Kelly has won at every place he’s coached and it won’t take long for this team to improve on the field. Also, the roster isn’t lacking for talent. Anchored by rising star tackle Maason Smith, the Tigers should have one of the top defensive fronts in the SEC. A battle is ongoing at quarterback, but there are options, including Myles Brennan and Arizona State transfer Jayden Daniels. Receiver Kayshon Boutte is among the nation’s best, and John Emery is back at running back after sitting out ’21.

Remaining Concerns: A transition period or learning curve is to be expected for Kelly in his first year in a new conference. Outside of the new staff meshing with the roster, the offensive line, secondary and overall quarterback play remain a question mark going into the opener in New Orleans against Florida State.

Schedule Note: LSU catches key swing games against Mississippi State, Tennessee and Ole Miss in Baton Rouge this fall.

Prediction: 4th in the SEC West, 8-4 overall

Related: College Football's Biggest QB Battles for 2022

Miami

Over/Under Win Projections: 8.5 (DraftKings)

2021 Record: 7-5 (5-3 ACC)

What Went Wrong in 2021: The Hurricanes had high expectations going into 2021, but those were quickly derailed with a 2-4 start and the loss of quarterback D’Eriq King due to injury. However, Miami rebounded with five wins over its final six games, including a 38-34 victory over eventual ACC champion Pitt. Scoring points (34.1 a game) wasn’t a problem, but the Hurricanes struggled all around on defense (28.2 a contest) and missed tackles were an issue. The overall direction of the program, combined with the 7-5 mark, spelled the end of Manny Diaz’s tenure in Coral Gables.

Why to Expect Improvement: A new coach (Mario Cristobal) and a better overall staff should generate instant improvement in ’22. Quarterback Tyler Van Dyke had a breakout second half of the season and is among the nation’s top signal-callers. The ‘Canes also have the makings of a solid offensive line and return one of the ACC’s top backfields. Although question marks remain on defense, the new staff led by coordinator Kevin Steele should make a difference on this side of the ball. Also, a couple of additions through the portal added depth and needed talent to the line.

Remaining Concerns: Is there a transition period for Cristobal and the new staff? Overall concerns about the offense are minimal, but Van Dyke lost his top two receivers in Charleston Rambo and Mike Harley. Are Xavier Restrepo and Key’Shawn Smith ready to take on a bigger role? How big of a jump will the defense make in Steele’s debut? Can this unit at least solve its tackling woes? Better play out of the linebacker unit is a must.

Schedule Note: Three of Miami’s toughest four contests take place in November. The ‘Canes play at Texas A&M in early September but games against Florida State, Clemson (road) and Pitt in the final month of the season allow Cristobal’s team plenty of time to sort through some of the personnel question marks.

Prediction: 1st in the ACC Coastal, 9-3 overall

Nebraska

Over/Under Win Projections: 7.5 (DraftKings)

2021 Record: 3-9 (1-8 Big Ten)

What Went Wrong in 2021: Small mistakes added up into big problems for Nebraska. The Cornhuskers went 0-8 in one-score games and won just three contests – the fewest by the program (in a full season of games) since 1961. The inability to turn close games into wins was a result of special teams blunders, turnovers (a minus-five margin) and red-zone struggles (ninth in the Big Ten). Both sides of the ball could play better overall – especially the offense along the line – but those small errors added up to loss after loss in close matchups.

Why to Expect Improvement: Nebraska is 5-20 under coach Scott Frost in one-score games. Surely that trend will trend the other direction at some point, right? Frost is still involved in the offense, but the arrival of veteran play-caller Mark Whipple should help this unit. Also, Texas transfer quarterback Casey Thompson is a good fit for this attack. Defense hasn’t been the issue in Lincoln, and there’s a lot to like about this unit despite only returning five starters. TCU transfer Ochaun Mathis will be an impact addition up front. Frost also took steps to fix special teams by hiring an on-field coordinator (Bill Busch) and bringing in transfers at kicker and punter.

Remaining Concerns: The pressure is on Frost and this staff to show progress right away in 2022. How will all of the new pieces on offense mesh and is there be a seamless transition with Whipple and Thompson working together? Special teams remain a concern until proven otherwise. The turnover along the defensive line was mitigated by transfer additions, but the offensive line is still a major concern for Frost and Whipple.

Schedule Note: Nebraska could be favored in six of its first eight games. However, it could be an underdog in its last four – Minnesota, at Michigan, Wisconsin and at Iowa. Getting to a bowl likely requires a fast start.

Prediction: 5th in the Big Ten West, 6-6 overall

Related: College Football's Top Impact Transfer Quarterbacks for 2022

San Jose State

Over/Under Win Projections: 6.5 (DraftKings)

2021 Record: 5-7 (3-5 Mountain West)

What Went Wrong in 2021: Offensive regression. After leading the Mountain West in yards per play (6.6) in 2020, the Spartans averaged only 5.4 in the category last fall. Also, the scoring average dropped to 20 points a contest. Turnovers (24 lost) and a lack of big plays were a problem. The defense slipped a notch as well. After holding teams to 19.9 points a game in ’20, San Jose State allowed 26.5 last fall.

Why to Expect Improvement: The arrival of Hawaii transfer quarterback Chevan Cordeiro gives the offense a much-needed boost. Also, thanks to the arrival of Nevada transfers Elijah Cooks and Justin Lockhart, the Spartans also have one of the Mountain West’s top receiving corps. Although the defense allowed more points per game than it did in ’20, it’s notable this unit still held teams to 5.2 yards per snap. Ends Viliami Fehoko and Cade Hall headline a defense that brings back eight starters.

Remaining Concerns: Cleaning up last year’s small mistakes (turnovers, red zone and third downs) is a priority. Although Cordeiro’s arrival is significant, the offensive line is a concern with just one starter back. San Jose State needs to tighten up a pass defense that ranked 10th in the Mountain West in efficiency last year.

Schedule Note: Missing Boise State and Air Force in crossover play is huge for bowl hopes. Also, coach Brent Brennan’s team has three winnable games in non-conference play – Portland State, Western Michigan and New Mexico State. UNLV, Nevada, Colorado State and Hawaii all come to San Jose in ’22.

Prediction: 3rd in the Mountain West's West Division, 6-6 overall

Southern Miss

Over/Under Win Projections: 5 (DraftKings)

2021 Record: 3-9 (2-6 C-USA)

What Went Wrong in 2021: Will Hall was one of the top hires from last year’s coach carousel, but he never had a chance to succeed thanks to a rash of injuries at quarterback. Southern Miss used four different starting quarterbacks and 10 players recorded a pass attempt. The injury report was so lengthy it forced Hall and his staff to move running back Frank Gore Jr. to Wildcat quarterback at the end of the year. Considering all of the injuries at quarterback last year, it’s hard to gauge how far Hall has been able to improve this team since taking over.

Why to Expect Improvement: Southern Miss simply can’t have bad luck two years in a row at quarterback, right? If healthy, Ty Keyes is poised for a breakout season at quarterback, and there’s talent at the skill spots with Gore and Jason Brownlee (WR). Also, transfer additions should improve the offensive line and the defense.

Remaining Concerns: Keyes looks poised for a breakout year, but can he deliver in 2022? How far will the line and defense improve overall with a full offseason to work under this staff? Linebacker Hayes Maples was lost for the year this summer and will be missed.

Schedule Note: The conference slate contains some good with a favorable home schedule (Louisiana, Georgia State and South Alabama all come to Hattiesburg) and some bad (catching Coastal Carolina and Georgia State – two of the top teams in the conference) in crossover play.

Prediction: 4th in the Sun Belt West, 6-6 overall

Texas

Over/Under Win Projections: 8.5 (DraftKings)

2021 Record: 5-7 (3-6 Big 12)

What Went Wrong in 2021: Steve Sarkisian’s first year in Austin was a disappointment. The Longhorns struggled to close out games in the second half and finished 2-5 in one-score games. The line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball was a major issue, and the quarterback play between Casey Thompson and Hudson Card was inconsistent. Texas ranked eighth in the Big 12 in points allowed (31.1) and against the run (201.6 yards a game) and surrendered 6.03 yards per play.

Why to Expect Improvement: As usual, Texas doesn’t lack for roster talent. Sarkisian will have no trouble putting points on the scoreboard behind an offense that features quarterback Quinn Ewers (or Hudson Card), running back Bijan Robinson and receivers Xavier Worthy and Isaiah Neyor – provided the offensive line improves of course. Although question marks remain on defense, another offseason to develop and build under coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski should help.

Remaining Concerns: The line of scrimmage and defense. How fast will the offensive line jell with a couple of new starters? And on defense, can the Longhorns show immediate improvement after ranking near the bottom of the Big 12? Finding more players to create havoc (just 20 sacks as a team in ’21) is a must.

Schedule Note: Catching Alabama in Week 2 isn’t ideal for Sarkisian’s rebuilding effort, but there’s a good chance this team is 4-1 going into the matchup against Oklahoma in Dallas. Also, Texas gets two out of its last three games at home. Baylor also visits Austin this year.

Prediction: 4th in the Big 12, 8-4 overall

Related: College Football's Top Impact Transfer Quarterbacks for 2022

Tulane

Over/Under Win Projections: 6 (DraftKings)

2021 Record: 2-10 (1-7 AAC)

What Went Wrong in 2021: Tulane was expected to challenge for a winning record and a bowl last year but regressed to 2-10 – the program’s worst record under coach Willie Fritz. Lost turnovers (25) and defensive issues (34 points a game) were primarily to blame, but the offense also took a step back and struggled to convert on third downs and in the red zone.

Why to Expect Improvement: Fritz is too good of a coach for Tulane to have another 2-10 season. As indicated above, turnovers and efficiency in critical spots (third downs and red zone) were a problem and certainly played a role in an 0-5 record in close games. That’s a mark unlikely to be replicated in ’22. Quarterback Michael Pratt is among the AAC’s top signal-callers, and a deep backfield is in place led by Tyjae Spears. Although Tulane’s defensive numbers were awful, this unit played better later in the season. With seven starters back, improvement should be noticeable in coordinator Chris Hampton’s second year.

Remaining Concerns: How big of a step forward is the overall improvement? Getting back to a bowl requires better play up front after this unit has allowed 67 sacks over the last two years. Pratt also needs more help from his receivers. Can Tulane’s defense build off its late-season promise? Losing lineman Jeffery Johnson as a transfer to Oklahoma was a blow to the defensive front, and the secondary finished 10th in the AAC in pass efficiency defense last fall.

Schedule Note: The Green Wave has a tough road facing the top three teams in the AAC – Cincinnati, UCF and Houston – in league play. However, potential swing matchups against SMU, UCF, Memphis and East Carolina are at Yulman Stadium.

Prediction: 7th in the AAC, 6-6 overall

USC

Over/Under Win Projections: 9.5 (DraftKings)

2021 Record: 4-8 (3-6 Pac-12)

What Went Wrong in 2021: Everything. A 42-28 loss to Stanford in early September spelled the end of Clay Helton’s tenure in Los Angeles, and the team had a cloud of uncertainty hanging over it the rest of the way. Receiver Drake London (88 catches) was lost due to injury in October, quarterback play was inconsistent and the trenches were a work in progress. None of those concerns matched the defensive performance, however. USC ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in points allowed, struggled to stop the run, gave up too many big plays and surrendered 6.4 yards per play.

Why to Expect Improvement: Big changes. New coach Lincoln Riley is the best hire of the offseason, and a better staff should maximize the talent on the roster. Riley improved the roster significantly through the portal by bringing in around 20 transfers expected to make an impact on both sides of the ball, including quarterback Caleb Williams, receiver Jordan Addison and defenders Shane Lee (LB), Eric Gentry (LB), Mekhi Blackmon (CB), and Romello Height (LB). Yes, USC’s roster is far from perfect, but there’s still a good bit of talent in the program and Riley added to it this offseason.

Remaining Concerns: How will all of the transfers mesh with the new staff in one offseason? Provided the line continues to improve, scoring points won’t be a problem. USC’s defense still needs more talent and depth but should improve under the new staff. The unit’s biggest concerns are up front, which could be vulnerable against the run.

Schedule Note: USC could be favored in 10 of its games. A home matchup versus Notre Dame and a game at Utah might be the only underdog spots for this team in ’22.

Prediction: 2nd in the Pac-12 and 10-2 overall

Related: Ranking the Pac-12 Quarterbacks for 2022

Washington

2022 Over/Under Win Projections: 7.5 (DraftKings)

2021 Record: 4-8 (3-6 Pac-12)

What Went Wrong in 2021: The Huskies lost to FCS Montana in the season opener and things quickly went downhill from there. The offense was awful (21.5 points a game and 4.98 yards per play), and the defense had issues against the run (11th in the Pac-12). Coach Jimmy Lake was dismissed in late November, and Washington finished the year on a four-game losing streak. Setting aside the abbreviated 2020 campaign, the team’s four wins were the fewest since an 0-12 mark in ’08.

Why to Expect Improvement: The arrival of new coach Kalen DeBoer should immediate boost Washington’s sluggish offense. Transfer quarterback Michael Penix Jr. will push Sam Huard and Dylan Morris for the job and help the offense take better advantage of playmakers in the receiving corps. Also, the Huskies should be much improved up front, especially with Jaxson Kirkland receiving an additional year of eligibility. Just three starters are back on defense, but the foundation is hardly bare thanks to the return of edge rusher Zion Tupuola-Fetui and lineman Tuli Letuligasenoa.

Remaining Concerns: DeBoer should help the offense take a big step forward, but how far can this unit progress? A better rushing attack (98.4 yards a game) and improved play up front are desperately needed. The defense is likely to regress some considering the turnover in personnel. The cornerback spots are a little thin and concerns remain about the unit’s ability to stop the run.

Schedule Note: Washington does not play Utah or USC in crossover play and swing games against Oregon State and Stanford at home.

Prediction: 3rd Pac-12 North and 7-5 overall

Other Teams to Watch

Arizona

The schedule is not kind for second-year coach Jedd Fisch. However, an outstanding recruiting class, combined with some key pickups in the transfer portal, shows this program is on the right track. And, it can only get better after a 1-11 finish last year.

Charlotte

Scoring points won't be a problem, but coach Will Healy's squad needs to shore up a struggling defense to get bowl eligible in 2022.

Colorado StateFormer Nevada coach Jay Norvell has work to do on defense and to rebuild a completely revamped offensive line. However, the Rams only won three games last year, so if the offense clicks behind new quarterback Clay Millen, a bowl game is within reach. 

North CarolinaThe Tar Heels had a disappointing 2021 season, but could they be undervalued going into '22? Drake Maye and Jacolby Criswell both appear to be capable signal-callers to replace Sam Howell, and there's optimism about the defense under new coordinator Gene Chizik. 

Old DominionRicky Rahne's team finished 2021 in impressive fashion by winning five out of their last six. The move to the Sun Belt brings a tougher schedule, but with 17 starters back, a jump to seven wins isn't out of the question.

Penn StateIf the Nittany Lions solve their offensive line concerns and get more consistent play from quarterback Sean Clifford, a quick rebound to 9-3 is within reach.

South CarolinaThe schedule is tough, but look for coach Shane Beamer's team - especially with Spencer Rattler at quarterback now - to take a step forward in 2022.

TroyNew coach Jon Sumrall was an underrated hire. The Trojans should have one of the Sun Belt's top defenses but need more from the offense to challenge Louisiana in the West Division.

West VirginiaThe addition of JT Daniels at quarterback could be the missing piece for an offense returning all five starters up front and intriguing talent at the skill spots.

Podcast: Pac-12 vs. Big 12 continues. Is a 16-team playoff coming? What would the CFB Playoff look like if it had a 12-team format in 2022?

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