Top 25 coaches poll: A closer look at every team in college football's preseason ranking

Erick Smith
USA TODAY

The preseason USA TODAY Sports AFCA Coaches Poll has been released with the start of the college football season less than one month away.

Outlooks for the Top 25 teams in the preseason rankings with their 2021 records. All times Eastern.

1. Alabama (13-2)

Points:  1,634 (54 first-place votes). Previous ranking: 2. Opens: Sept. 3 vs. Utah State (SEC, 7:30).

Heisman Trophy winning quarterback (Bryce Young)? Check. Best defensive player in the country (Will Anderson)? Check. Incoming impact transfers? Check. So while the losses at wide receiver, running back and offensive line provide some pause about this season, Alabama remains the favorite in the SEC and the College Football Playoff race. Among the impact newcomers to watch are cornerback Eli Ricks of LSU, Jermaine Burton — the second-leading wide receiver on Georgia’s title team last fall — and running back Jahmyr Gibbs, who joins from Georgia Tech after ranking third in all-purpose yards last year.

HIGH TIDE:Alabama tops preseason coaches poll ahead of Ohio State, Georgia

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OVERRATED:Five teams in the preseason poll that were picked too high

2. Ohio State (11-2)

Points: 1,564 (5 first-place votes). Previous ranking: 5. Opens: Sept. 3 vs. No. 5 Notre Dame (ABC, 7:30).

QB C.J. Stroud was magnificent in his first year as starter, throwing for 4,435 yards and 44 touchdowns as the Buckeyes ranked No. 1 in scoring average (45.7 points) and total offense per game (561.2 yards). Expect similar fireworks this year. WR Jaxson Smith-Njigba is the latest in the line of great Ohio State receivers and RB TreVeyon Henderson went for 1,560 yards and 19 scores (rushing and receiving) as a freshman last season. Where OSU’s title run got tripped up was on defense. The unit broke down against the run in losses to Oregon and Michigan and the secondary was inconsistent. Ryan Day hired Oklahoma State coordinator Jim Knowles to fix things. How quickly it comes together is critical with a tough early schedule.

Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud prepares to take a snap against Michigan State during their 2021 game in Columbus, Ohio.

3. Georgia (14-1)

Points: 1,542 (6 first-place votes). Previous ranking: 1. Opens: Sept. 3 vs. No. 12 Oregon in Atlanta (ABC, 3:30).

Quarterback uncertainty loomed until Stetson Bennett decided to return, causing JT Daniels to transfer and pushing off the battle between backups Carson Beck and Brock Vandagriff for another season. Running back looks strong with Kendall Milton and Kenny McIntosh taking over duties. Brock Bowers is a star at tight end and the offensive line looks promising. The losses are huge on defense, especially in the front seven. Watching the NFL draft highlighted that. However, Kirby Smart has plenty of elite recruits waiting to step in to join stars Jalen Carter and Nolan Smith.

4. Clemson (10-3)

Points: 1,356. Previous ranking: 16. Opens: Sept. 5 at Georgia Tech (ESPN, 8).

It was only a year ago that QB D.J. Uiagalelei was listed among the top contenders for the Heisman Trophy. Now after throwing just nine touchdowns in 2021, it’s not even certain the junior will remain the team’s starter. Uiagalelei will be tested by incoming freshman Cade Klubnik, a five-star recruit. A return to the top of the ACC likely will be powered by a defense that was second in scoring (14.8 ppg), eighth in total defense (310.2 ypg) and produced 42 sacks. Tyler Davis and Myles Murphy are standouts on an elite defensive line.

5. Notre Dame (11-2)

Points: 1,284. Previous ranking: 9. Opens: Sept. 3 at No. 2 Ohio State (ABC, 7:30).

Marcus Freeman steps into the shoes of departed coach Brian Kelly full-time after take over prior to the team's Fiesta Bowl loss to Oklahoma State. Tyler Buchner and Drew Pyne are competing for the quarterback job and the winner will have the pressure of carrying the offense with some questions in the run game. Tight end Michael Mayer is one of the best players at his position. He should be a comfort blanket in the passing game. The defense has the makings of a good group up front. Northwestern transfer Brandon Joseph should help a secondary that needs to be better.

6. Michigan (12-2)

Points: 1,232. Previous ranking: 3. Opens: Sept. 3 vs. Colorado State (ABC, noon).

After beating Ohio State and winning their first Big Ten title since 2004, things look very different for the Wolverines, who made a surprise playoff appearance after starting the season unranked. Now comes the challenge of repeating. Michigan didn’t do a deep dive into the transfer portal to rebuild a defense decimated by losses to graduation and the NFL. Only two of the nine players to record two sacks in 2021 are back, so that’s an area to watch early in the season. The offense should open up with Cade McNamara back for his second season as a starter and a talented receiving corps that welcomes back Ronnie Bell from injury.

7. Texas A&M (8-4)

Points: 1,219. Previous ranking: 25. Opens: Sept. 3 vs. Sam Houston State (SEC, noon).

Even with a defeat of Alabama, the Aggies still had a disappointing campaign that started with the loss of quarterback Haynes King in the opener and saw them fail to threaten the top of the division. Spring didn’t provide an answer at quarterback. King, LSU transfer Max Johnson and freshman Connor Wiegman all remain in the mix. The skill positions appear set with RB Devon Achane and WR Ainias Smith among the expected leaders. The defense is full of talented recruits that are short on experience - especially up front. Skeptics will remain until A&M finally breaks through and reaches double-figure wins.

Aggies RB Devon Achane (6) and WR Jalen Preston (5) celebrate Ainias Smith's touchdown against Alabama in the fourth quarter.

8. Utah (10-4)

Points: 1,134. Previous ranking: 12. Opens: Sept. 3 at Florida (ESPN, 7).

Kyle Whittingham’s decision to promote Cam Rising to starting quarterback turned last season around for the Utes after a 1-2 start. It ended with a conference title and memorable shootout loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. Rising returns with RB Tavion Thomas, who had 21 touchdowns on the ground. TE Brant Kuithe was the team’s leading receiver and position mate Dalton Kincaid was right behind him. The defense again will be strong up front with Florida transfer Mohamoud Diabate slotting in at linebacker and filling a big need. The biggest worry is the secondary that was torched by the Buckeyes. DB Clark Phillips is an elite player but needs help.

9. Oklahoma (11-2)

Points: 1,027. Previous ranking: 10. Opens: Sept. 3 vs. Texas-El Paso (Fox, 3:30).

Applying conventional wisdom, there would be an expectation that the Sooners would take a step back after losing coach Lincoln Riley and having several key players, including quarterback Caleb Williams, transfer. Don't tell that to Brent Venables. The former Clemson defensive coordinator bringing a fresh approach and intensity after being hired that has been embraced by the holdovers. A Central Florida transfer, Dillon Gabriel steps in at quarterback with former Mississippi coordinator Jeff Lebby leading the offense. WR Marvin Mims should have a breakout season, but the running game must improve. DL Jalen. Redmond, LB DaShaun White and DB Woodi Washington are key pieces on defense capable of pushing for a run at the College Football Playoff.

10. Baylor (12-2)

Points: 891. Previous ranking: 6. Opens: Sept. 3 vs. Albany.

Blake Shapen won the quarterback job, prompting the transfer of Gerry Bohanon, who was the starter for most of last season. Shapen isn’t the runner that Bohanon is, but his passing ability should open up the offense. With most of the offensive line returning, the focus will be sorting out significant departures at running back and receiver. The defense lost two stars in Jalen Pitre and Terrel Bernard - both high NFL draft picks - but there’s lots of talent returning, especially up front. Don’t be surprised if they’re back in the Big 12 championship game with the physical approach of Dave Aranda continuing to play dividends.

11. Oklahoma State (12-2)

Points: 859. Previous ranking: 7. Opens: Sept. 1 vs. Central Michigan (FS1, 7).

The Cowboys are in great shape if experience at quarterback can guarantee a successful season. Spencer Sanders is back for his fourth year as the team’s starting quarterback. WR Brennan Presley should emerge as his top target. The offense does need someone to step forward at running back. The biggest concerns, however, are on defense with coordinator Jim Knowles off to Ohio State and Derek Mason replacing him. The core of last year’s outstanding unit is gone and there will be growing pains. Collin Oliver had a fantastic freshman season and should be a pass-rushing threat along with Brock Martin. But the secondary needs rebuilding to produce another run at the conference title game.

12. Oregon (10-4)

Points: 734. Previous ranking: 21. Opens: Sept. 3 vs. No. 3 Georgia (ABC, 3:30).

The first issue new coach Dan Lanning must address is figuring out who is his starting quarterback. Bo Nix transfers in from Auburn after three roller-coaster seasons and will compete with Ty Thompson, who redshirted after joining the program as one of the nation’s top recruits. Lanning’s second task will be sorting out the defense. That might be a more comfortable endeavor as he built one of the country’s elite units at Georgia. Noah Sewell and Justin Flowe have the makings of a standout linebacker duo if the latter can stay healthy after two injury-plagued seasons. The one area Oregon will be able to count on is offensive line, where most of last year’s starting group returns and should pave the way for a strong running game.

13. North Carolina State (9-3)

Points: 726. Previous ranking: 19. Opens: Sept. 3 at East Carolina (ESPN, noon).

There’s enough returning talent to make this the best team of coach Dave Doeren’s tenure. The optimism about reaching the school’s first ACC title game starts with QB Devin Leary, who threw for 3,433 yards and 35 touchdowns. A primary ball carrier needs to emerge but Thayer Thomas and Devin Carter give Leary two excellent receiving options. There’s talent returning from a defense that finished 14th in points allowed (14.7). DL Cory Durden and LB Drake Thomas will be joined on a stingy defense by LB Payton Wilson, who missed all but two games last season due to injury.

14. Michigan State (11-2)

Points: 711. Previous ranking: 8. Opens: Sept. 2 vs. Western Michigan (ESPN, 7).

Mel Tucker’s second season couldn’t have gone much better. Payton Thorne emerged as the productive quarterback the program had been missing and several transfers made an immediate impact. Kenneth Walker arrived from Wake Forest to boost the running game and was an All-American. This year, the Spartans are bringing two players to replace him – Jalen Berger (Wisconsin) and Jarek Broussard (Colorado). The biggest area of concern is the secondary, which finished dead last in the country in allowing 324.8 yards per game. The good news? All the starters from the back end return and are motivated to erase last year’s bad memories.

15. Southern California (4-8)

Points: 602. Previous ranking: Not ranked. Opens: Sept. 3 vs. Rice (Pac-12, 6).

There’s talk about the Trojans possibly being playoff contenders or winning the Pac-12 in Lincoln Riley’s first season. But there are major concerns on both sides of the ball after last year’s team imploded. Caleb Williams transferred with Riley from Oklahoma and will take over the quarterback spot. He showed moments of brilliance and inexperience as a freshman at Oklahoma. Joining him are more than a dozen other transfers, including running back Travis Dye from Oregon and Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison from Pittsburgh. There are problems to address on the offensive line and throughout the defense. So while USC might score more, they’re going to have to stop people without the requisite talent.

16. Pittsburgh (11-3)

Points: 450. Previous ranking: 13. Opens: Sept. 1 vs. West Virginia (ESPN, 7).

The Panthers will be hard-pressed to repeat their ACC title with some key losses, including QB Kenny Pickett, and the surprise transfer of Addison. Southern California transfer Kedon Slovis will replace Pickett. The offense, though, needs to find some playmakers. A solid spring has Pittsburgh coaches feeling better about linebacker play. One of the standouts from drills was junior Bangally Kamara. Should this group be better than expected, the Panthers’ defensive line could make this one of the top front sevens in the conference.

17. Miami (Fla.) (7-5)

Points: 433. Previous ranking: Not ranked. Opens: Sept. 3 vs. Bethune-Cookman (ACC, 3:30).

Mario Cristobal won’t reverse Miami’s direction from the start, though his focus on recruiting, development and an embrace of the program’s long-dormant swagger seems like the perfect recipe for the Hurricanes. QB Tyler Van Dyke is the face of the team after a superb freshman year (2,931 yards and 25 touchdowns passing), and rightfully so. RB Jaylen Knighton brings a threat on the ground – which is much-needed to take pressure off Van Dyke – and can be a weapon in the passing game. Ultimately, the Hurricanes will contend for the conference championship game only if the pass rush and tackling is far better than in 2021.

18. Texas (5-7)

Points: 383 (1 first-place vote). Previous ranking: Not ranked. Opens: Sept. 3 vs. Louisiana-Monroe (Longhorn Network, 8).

The Longhorns lost six games in a row in the middle of Steve Sarkisian’s debut season, including an epic meltdown against Oklahoma, and missed out on a bowl game for the third time in seven seasons. Quinn Ewers, a transfer from Ohio State, is being heralded as the savior, but the freshman quarterback still is a work in progress and asking him to carry the load is unrealistic. He’s still competing with Hudson Card for the starting job. Bijan Robinson and Xavier Worthy give Sarkisian two of the best offensive weapons in the league, but the offensive line has to get better. The defense also needs to step forward after allowing 30 points or more in all seven losses and more than 200 yards rushing per game.

19. Wake Forest (11-3)

Points: 381. Previous ranking: 14. Opens: Sept. 1 vs. VMI (ACC, 7:30).

The offense that averaged 467.9 yards and 41 points may be even better than it was in 2021, when QB Sam Hartman keyed a historic season for Dave Clawson and the Demon Deacons. WRs A.T. Perry (1,293 yards, 15 touchdowns) and Taylor Morin are two receiving threats that will again be productive. The dominant theme this offseason is the state of a defense that returns defensive coordinator Brad Lambert for his second stint with the program. DL Rondell Bothroyd staying after registering eight sacks and 16 1/2 tackles for loss was a big boost but the front must get better against the run.

20. Wisconsin (9-4)

Points: 369. Previous ranking: Not ranked. Opens: Sept. 3 vs. Illinois State (FS1, 7).

The formula will stay the same for the Badgers. They'll rely on their running game and defense – which ranked first in the country in allowing 239.1 yards per game - to bludgeon teams and win games. Improved play from QB Graham Mertz, despite an inexperienced receiving corps, is necessary to navigate a tough schedule. The defense took hits, but two transfers from the Power Five will help the unit retool at cornerback. Jay Shaw joins from UCLA after second-team all-Pac-12 honors. Cedrick Dort made 25 starts at Kentucky.

Wisconsin running back Braelon Allen (0) rushes between Arizona State linebacker Merlin Robertson (8) and defensive back Timarcus Davis during the 2021 Las Vegas Bowl at Allegiant Stadium.

21. Kentucky (10-3)

Points: 353. Previous ranking: 15. Opens: Sept. 3 vs. Miami (Ohio).

Mark Stoops just quietly wins at one of the toughest places to succeed in the Southeastern Conference. This year will be different because the Wildcats have greater expectations. Much of the optimism starts with the return of QB Will Levis, who threw for 24 touchdowns and ran for another nine scores. RB Chris Rodriguez was an all-conference performer, but there’s losses at offensive line and receiver that are concerns. Stoops has produced strong defenses throughout his nine-year tenure. There were some big hits on the defensive line and secondary but expect the group to again be one of the SEC’s better units.

22. Cincinnati (13-1)

Points: 339. Previous ranking: 4. Opens: Sept. 3 at No. 23 Arkansas (ESPN, 3:30).

The Bearcats have compiled a 44-7 record over the last four seasons and became the first Group of Five team to crack the College Football Playoff last season. Cincinnati had a program-record nine players selected in the 2022 NFL draft, including QB Desmond Ridder and DB Ahmad Gardner. The quarterback job remains open. Sophomore Evan Prater and senior Ben Bryant (3,121 passing yards last season at Eastern Michigan) are expected to battle through fall camp. DB Arquon Bush should help mitigate the loss of Gardner, but there still are holes to fill on defense.

23. Arkansas (9-4)

Points: 334. Previous ranking: 20. Opens: Sept. 3 vs. No. 22 Cincinnati (ESPN, 3:30).

The Razorbacks have gone from a program that had won one conference game during the previous three years to winning seven in Sam Pittman’s first two seasons. QB KJ Jefferson will again be the focal point of the offense after leading the team in running and passing. He will be working behind a mostly veteran offensive line. While LB Bumper Pool is the star on defense, the secondary will again be the backbone of the defense with Jalen Catalon and Myles Slusher leading the way. Better play against the run is critical to better the nine wins from last year.

24. Mississippi (10-3)

Points:  327. Previous ranking: 11. Opens: Sept. 3 vs. Troy (SEC, 4).

The loss of quarterback Matt Corral has the potential to derail the Rebels’ growth under Lane Kiffin. Replacing Corral will come down to the competition between Southern California transfer Jaxson Dart and former backup Luke Altmyer. Kiffin aggressively courted players on both sides of the ball from the transfer portal. RB Zach Evans (TCU) brings an elite threat to the running game, while Jaylon Robinson (Central Florida) will pair well with WR Jonathan Mingo. LB Troy Brown (Central Michigan) and DB Isheem Young (Iowa State) should help on defense.

25. Houston (12-2)

Points: 257. Previous ranking: 17. Opens: Sept. 3 at Texas-San Antonio (CBSSN, 3:30).

Dana Holgorsen has poised the Cougars to contend again in the American Athletic after reaching the conference championship game last season. QB Clayton Tune returns after a breakout season. WR Nathaniel Dell, the leading receiver last season (1,329 yards and 12 touchdowns), is one of the top players at his position. The defense will be led by DL Derek Parish and LB Donavan Mutin, two standouts that should continue improvements that were made to the unit last year. The challenge again will be getting past Cincinnati.

Contributing: Sara Tidwell, The Cincinnati Enquirer