The regular season is over and the bowl schedule is set, so it's time to look back at the teams and people that will stick with us from the 2022 college football season. If there's one thing we learned this year -- heck, if there's one thing we learn every year -- it's that so little of what we expect to happen actually comes to fruition.
Take the College Football Playoff race. A new era emerged as Alabama, Clemson and Oklahoma all missed the cut. Ohio State, which didn't even win the Big Ten East for the second straight year, backed its way in as the No. 4 seed. Conversely, Michigan and Georgia clinched back-to-back spots, while TCU became just the second Big 12 school to earn a trip to the playoff.
Looking back at the preseason AP Top 25 feels like a time machine. Notre Dame and Texas A&M ranked No. 5 and 6, respectively. Baylor and Oklahoma were top-10 teams, and Miami, Wisconsin and Arkansas weren't far behind. Now, as many as 16 teams from that preseason poll could find themselves out of the final poll after a tumultuous season. That just created even more opportunities for the rest of the sport to rise.
Here are the biggest winners and losers of the 2022 college football season.
TCU: When TCU moved on from Gary Patterson after more than 20 years, bringing Power Five retread Sonny Dykes from cross-town rival SMU didn't garner much excitement. One year later, Dykes has to go down as one of the smartest hires in recent memory as he became the first external coaching hire to lead his program to the College Football Playoff in his first season -- and he did it at TCU. The Frogs also became the first school from Texas to make the field -- and second from the Big 12 -- beating flagships Texas and Texas A&M to the final four. Quarterback Max Duggan went from backup quarterback to Heisman finalist in one season. It was a Cinderella season for the ages.
Tennessee: Expectations were high heading into Josh Heupel's second season, but the Volunteers blasted through the ceiling. The offense hit the stratosphere behind quarterback Hendon Hooker, who finished as one of the most productive players in the nation. The headliner is obvious: The Vols knocked off Alabama for the first time during the Nick Saban era and pulled the goal posts to the ground. If not for a horrific November night at South Carolina, Tennessee would be in the College Football Playoff right now. Regardless, the vibes in Knoxville are impeccable.
The Pac-12: Though it missed the College Football Playoff for the sixth straight season, the state of West Coast football hasn't looked this good in years. Six teams finished in the final regular-season CFP Rankings, the most of any conference. Lincoln Riley's ascent at USC gets the most attention, but don't sleep on Jonathan Smith at Oregon State, Jake Dickert at Washington State and even what Jedd Fisch is doing at Arizona. If resurgent Washington had not stumbled against Arizona State, the Pac-12 Championship Game would have been a playoff play-in between the Huskies and USC. USC and UCLA will leave the conference in 2024, creating a massive hole, but the rest of the league is still in solid shape with Utah leading the way. Oh, and we haven't even mentioned Deion Sanders at Colorado.
Kansas: There's almost no stat that can contextualize how deep a hole the Jayhawks were in during the 2010s. Kansas had not reached a bowl game since 2008 -- which almost marked the last time it had even two conference victories. From 2010-2020, Kansas went a cool 21-108. Give Lance Leipold a billion dollars; he got Kansas to a bowl game in his second season! The Jayhawks put together one of the most dynamic offenses in the country behind star quarterback Jalon Daniels, starting 5-0 before Daniels missed some time with an injury.. With Leipold locked into a long-term contract, the future in Lawrence has never been brighter.
Duke: Don't look now, but Blue Devils coach Mike Elko built a contender in Durham in no time flat. Duke won more games in Elko's first season (8) than the last two seasons combined (5). Every single loss came by one score, including three losses by eight total points in ACC play. Quarterback Riley Leonard jumped off the page with nearly 2,800 yards and 20 touchdowns as a first-year starter. if Elko beats UCF in the Military Bowl, he will join David Cutcliffe as the only coach since World War II to win nine games in Durham. It's incredibly difficult to win at the major academic schools. Duke hit a home run.
Troy: The Trojans didn't make the flashiest hire by bringing in Kentucky linebackers coach Jon Sumrall -- a former Neal Brown associate head coach -- to lead the program. But after a three-year slog under Chip Lindsey, Troy was back to business with a massive 11-2 season and Sun Belt championship in Sumrall's first year in charge. The Trojans will be a force to deal with in the Sun Belt for years to come. Don't be surprised to see them enter the New Year's Six conversation in 2023.
Texas A&M: The Aggies aren't just the biggest loser of 2022; rather, they rank as one of the most disappointing teams in modern college football history. Texas A&M came into the season ranked No. 6 in the Preseason AP Top 25, but became the first squad since 2010 to go from the top six to missing a bowl game. The program had not missed a bowl game in any season since 2008, but picked the season after reeling in the No. 1 recruiting class of all time to hit the new low. There are a few bright spots. Quarterback Conner Weigman showed some intriguing tools in solid performances against then-No. 5 LSU. The disappointing season also means Fisher is likely to give up play calling duties for the first time in his career. Still, 2022 will be a black mark on a program that seemed to be on the upswing.
Miami: The dark horse ACC championship contender was anything but during a miserable 5-7 campaign, headlined by double-digit losses to Middle Tennessee, Duke and Pitt. Budding quarterback star Tyler Van Dyke regressed under ex-Broyles Award offensive coordinator Josh Gattis, and coach Mario Cristobal complained that struggles were the media's fault for setting expectations too high. Whatever the reason was, Miami won just one of its nine Power Five games by more than one score. Cristobal will lean on a strong recruiting class in 2023, but will it be enough?
Preseason Big 12 contenders: Two Big 12 programs entered the year in the Preseason AP Top 10: No. 9 Oklahoma and No. 10 Baylor. Two Big 12 programs left the year ranked in the top 10 -- and neither was Oklahoma nor Baylor. In fact, those teams picked No. 1 and No. 2 in the preseason Big 12 poll combined to finish 12-12, a shocking collapse after they combined for a 23-4 record in 2021. Oklahoma's defense collapsed under first-year coach Brent Venables as the Sooners finished among the bottom 15 teams in the country in total defense. Baylor's close game luck flipped as the Bears went 2-3 in one-score games. Some tough questions need to be asked in Norman and Waco.
Alabama: The Crimson Tide received 54 of the 63 first-place votes in the preseason AP Top 25 and seemed to be the overwhelming favorite to win the national championship with the best offensive (Bryce Young) and defensive (Will Anderson) players in the nation. However, the Tide were not their usual selves during a middling 10-2 campaign -- a program floor by Alabama standards. Alabama was 1-6 against the spread against winning teams and needed hectic finishes just to beat Texas and Texas A&M. It also ranked 127th out of 131 teams in penalties per game. Instead of ending with three straight SEC title, championship weekend featured Nick Saban pandering for a playoff spot. With Young, who is the heart and soul of a flawed team, likely off to the NFL, there will be plenty of soul-searching to do in Tuscaloosa.
Ohio State WR Jaxon Smith-Njigba: Last season, Smith-Njigba put together perhaps the greatest season by a wide receiver in Ohio State history -- and that's saying something. He set single-season program records for receptions and yards, and capped it off with 347 yards receiving in a Rose Bowl victory over Utah to set another program record. With any luck, Smith-Njigba could have been the second wide receiver in three years to win the Heisman Trophy in 2022. Unfortunately, we never got to see it. Smith-Njigba suffered a hamstring injury during Week 1 and only played in three games. On Monday, he officially shut things down for the season and ended his collegiate career. Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka ensured Ohio State's offense was still generational, but Smith-Njigba's career will make us wonder what could have been.