This article is part of our College Football Picks series.
We're onto Part II of our futures preview series where I'll focus on the longshots to win it all in 2022. I break down the cases for a number of teams and determine whether they're worthy of your wager. You can find Part I, where I focus on the favorites, here.
Two months ago I would have never thought I'd be writing about USC's title chances in 2022. Things have changed in a hurry, though, and now the Trojans cannot be ignored. Lincoln Riley was the home-run hire of this coaching cycle and he has been busy restocking the cupboard on the recruiting trail and in the transfer portal.
Not only has Riley gotten some of his former Sooner players to join him in LA, but he has also scoured the transfer market and added some talented and experienced players who can contribute right away while his recruits develop. The 1-2 punch of Travis Dye (Oregon) and Austin Jones (Stanford) gives USC a legit backfield duo. Adding Mario Williams (Oklahoma), Terrell Bynum (Washington) and Brenden Rice (Colorado) gives USC experienced depth at receiver and in Williams' case, a potential star.
Despite the success in the transfer portal, there's still one major question to be answered. Can USC land Caleb Williams? If yes, then buying USC at +3000 is a worthwhile pursuit. If not, then it's best to stay away. The +3000 seems to imply Williams will end up there, however, as it's the sixth-best odds on the board. So let's assume it's Williams behind center for USC and see what that means.
For one, the PAC-12 has undergone a big shakeup since the end of the regular season. Former juggernaut Oregon saw its roster gutted following Mario Cristobal's departure and while Dan Lanning may be a good hire in the end, the Ducks are due to take a step back. The rest of the PAC-12 is a mix of uninspiring teams on downswings or upstart programs that are still a ways away from being true competitors.
And then there's Utah. The Utes stand in USC's way even if the Trojans have Williams. They're tough, talented and well-coached. The two match up in Salt Lake this season in what could be the de facto PAC-12 title game.
Even if I'm not ready to fully buy into the Riley regime at USC, there's enough going for the program right now to where it makes sense to sprinkle some dough on the Trojans at +3000. The PAC-12 is winnable if it can get past Utah. USC also gets Notre Dame at home to finish the season and if it can win at least one of those games and the PAC-12, the Trojans could punch their first playoff ticket in program history. USC likely still isn't equipped in the trenches to win in the playoffs, but the Riley-Williams duo would give it a chance to win every week this season.
Texas A&M (+2500)
We've been here before with the Aggies. The preseason hype builds as the media tries to drum up hype for a challenger to Alabama in the west. We still haven't seen the Aggies break through though, whether it was in Kellen Mond's junior or senior seasons or last year when A&M had legit NFL talent everywhere. Ironically, last year was finally the year that a former Nick Saban assistant beat Alabama when the Aggies pulled the thrilling upset over the Tide at Kyle Field. Losses to Arkansas and Ole Miss, along with head-scratchers against Mississippi State and LSU, kept the Aggies short of their early-season goals. What will be different this time?
For one, quarterback play should be better. Week 1 starter Haynes King was out for most of the season with a foot injury and if he's not the guy, Texas A&M has a five-star early enrollee, Conner Weigman, who could be an option. The Aggies still have the versatile Ainias Smith out wide and Devon Achane has shown that he can be a true No.1 back in the SEC. The big change has been on the recruiting trail. Texas A&M has recruited well under Fisher but this cycle was an entirely different level as the Aggies locked in the No.1-rated class by a decent margin. It ranks a shade behind Alabama's historic 2021 haul on the 247 Composite.
National title teams have had true freshman contributors, but at what point does Texas A&M become over-reliant on its young stars? Texas A&M doesn't have a ton of locked-in starters returning and a recruiting class like this one is going to have scrutiny as Fisher will have to manage playing time to avoid an exodus through the transfer portal.
TL;DR: I really like what Texas A&M is building but questions at quarterback and a talented but inexperienced roster put the Aggies behind the 8-ball this year. I'll fade them at +2500 for now. I don't believe A&M will win in Tuscaloosa and this program doesn't have the cachet to get into the playoff without playing in its conference championship game.
Losing Aidan Hutchinson and David Ojabo will sting. As will the loss of Daxton Hill in the secondary. But with Jim Harbaugh still in Ann Arbor (we think) and much of the offense intact, there's reason to buy into Michigan not being a flash in the pan.
The run game can still be dominant. Blake Corum is a stud and Donovan Edwards is only going to get better after showing flashes as a freshman. The offense needs to be more explosive through the air for a title to be realistic, though. Michigan was efficient through the air, averaging a respectable 8.1 YPA as a team in 2021. Not having Ronnie Bell certainly hurt, and no one is expecting Michigan to turn into Ohio State, but there needs to be an explosive downfield element. The hope is that offensive coordinator Josh Gattis can generate something to that effect, whether it's with Cade McNamara or J.J. McCarthy behind center.
The defense will take a step back and the need for offensive evolution could prove to be too big of an ask. The Big Ten East is also arguably the toughest division in college football and Michigan draws the dreaded road game at Iowa as part of its cross-division slate. Oh, and Michigan has the tall task of beating Ohio State in Columbus.
Michigan is talented and well-coached enough to get to 10 wins this season but there might be too much standing in its way to find a seat at the table in the playoff.
This is my favorite longshot. Texas has had a long stretch of starts and stops en route to being "back" and it just turned in an underwhelming 5-7 Year 1 under coach Steve Sarkisian. So why buy in?
For one, Year 1's are never easy and Texas didn't make it easy on Sark as his first task was figuring out a high-profile quarterback situation after four-year starter, Sam Ehlinger, departed. Perhaps Texas should have scrapped the whole quarterback rotation thing before it started but that still doesn't excuse a home loss to Kansas. Either way, I'm willing to buy back in on Texas in Year 2 under Sark.
The key will of course be Quinn Ewers. The former five-star spent 2021 at Ohio State before transferring to his native Texas, where he was originally committed. If he's as good as advertised, this changes everything for Texas. Great quarterback play gives you a shot to win every single week, and we have to believe that there are things in place to maximize Ewers' impact. Sarkisian's offenses are known for their explosiveness and having skill guys like Bijan Robinson, Xavier Worthy and Wyoming transfer Isaiah Neyor will give Ewers everything he needs to be an instant impact.
We also have to look at the path forward. Similar to USC having the benefit of Oregon getting the rug swept out from under it, so too does Texas when it comes to Oklahoma. The Sooners lost their coach and a number of important players, including quarterback Caleb Williams. Now, Oklahoma did well in the aftermath, landing Brent Venables and former Ole Miss OC Jeff Lebby along with UCF transfer Dillon Gabriel. But the Sooners are vulnerable and I'm expecting drop-offs for Oklahoma State and Baylor. If I'm right on the state of the Big 12 and Ewers delivers, Texas suddenly has a chance to win the conference and get into the playoff. We'll be working from a thin margin of error, to be clear, with Alabama likely handing Texas a resounding loss in Week 2. But a 12-1 Big 12 Champ Texas team that only fell to Bama would absolutely have a case for making the playoff.
Best of the Rest
Notre Dame (+3500)
Despite the rocky on-field start for the Marcus Freeman era that involved a second-half collapse against Oklahoma State, there are pieces in place for the Irish to make a run in 2022. It'll be Tyler Buchner commanding the offense and though the receiving corps will be inexperienced and Kyren Williams is gone from the backfield mix, the Irish still have Michael Mayer.
The schedule is tough; opening on the road at Ohio State is a tall task and because Notre Dame is an independent, anything less than a perfect regular season could put the Irish on the outside of the playoff picture. The road game against USC to end the regular season suddenly looks much tougher than it did just a couple of months ago, too.
Again, +3500 means that it's going to take a lot for this wager to come in. We've seen Notre Dame fail multiple times in the playoff. But this is a new (read: non-Brian Kelly) era for the Irish and if Buchner is as good as advertised, the Irish will have a shot at making the playoff and challenging for a title.
The Badgers are a late but legitimate entrant into the Caleb Williams sweepstakes. If Williams winds up in Madison, this number will change drastically. Adding Williams to an offense that always has a great line, along with star running back Braelon Allen, will give the Badgers a serious boost to that side of the ball. The defense will be great again and if the offense can be equally effective, the Badgers should be able to at least get to Indianapolis with a shot at making the playoff. Road games against Ohio State and Michigan State are a brutal draw from the scheduling gods but with Williams in the fold, the Badgers would have a puncher's chance in both of those matchups. I'm leaving this alone if Wisconsin goes into the year with Graham Mertz at quarterback, but at +3500 with a chance to land Williams, it might be smart to throw down sooner than later before the odds change.