The college football season finally concluded Monday night with the Georgia Bulldogs ending a 41-year national championship drought.
Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs cleared the Alabama hurdle in the College Football Playoff title game, 33-18, and reclaimed their top spot in the final edition of this season’s power rankings. Georgia’s emphatic win was just one of the highlights of bowl season that ultimately had an impact on the final rankings.
Oklahoma State overcame a 21-point deficit in the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame while Ohio State rallied past Utah in one of the most entertaining Rose Bowls in recent history. Oklahoma won a bowl game with Bob Stoops at the helm, Michigan State won a bowl game without Kenneth Walker III and Baylor went from a two-win team in 2020 to a 12-win Sugar Bowl champion in 2021.
The bowl season led to a lot of shuffling within the power rankings and, now that the season has finally ended, it’s time to see where college football’s best teams landed in the final rankings.
1. Georgia Bulldogs (13-1)
The Bulldogs ended 41 years of frustration by finally defeating their arch nemesis Alabama 33-18 in the CFP National Championship. It was Georgia’s first national title since Jan. 1, 1981, but it shouldn’t have to wait that long to win another one, given what Kirby Smart has built in his six seasons at his alma mater. Georgia will have to replace several star players who are probably headed to the NFL, including linebacker Nakobe Dean, defensive tackles Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt and offensive tackle Jamaree Salyer. Other players such as quarterback Stetson Bennett, tailback James Cook and receiver George Pickens are also going to have big decisions to make about their futures. For now, the Bulldogs are going to enjoy ending what had been a maddening drought. — Mark Schlabach
2. Alabama Crimson Tide (13-2)
Despite the loss, the dynasty isn’t in peril. Not when Nick Saban’s two best players, quarterback Bryce Young and outside linebacker Will Anderson Jr., are back next season. And not when the schedule is as manageable as it appears with sub-.500 Texas headlining the out-of-conference slate, rival LSU in transition under a new coaching staff and an Eastern Division draw of Tennessee and Vanderbilt. A potential rematch with Georgia wouldn’t come until the SEC Championship Game. Leading rusher Brian Robinson Jr. will leave for the NFL, but the addition of former Georgia Tech star Jahmyr Gibbs should bolster an already deep running back room. Should receivers Jameson Williams and John Metchie III turn pro, replacing their production won’t be easy, but there’s a lot of young talent at the position, including freshman Ja’Corey Brooks, who emerged late in the year. — Alex Scarborough
3. Michigan Wolverines (12-2)
The Wolverines had a bounce-back season after an embarrassing 2020, and shocked a lot of people along the way. The defense under new coordinator Mike Macdonald flourished and produced Heisman runner up, defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, as well as edge rusher David Ojabo, both of whom are projected as first-round picks in the upcoming draft. The run game improved on offense with Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum as a dynamic duo that helped power Michigan to a win over Ohio State. The offense wasn’t one-dimensional, though, and improved drastically even from the beginning of the season under offensive coordinator Josh Gattis. That offense helped win Michigan’s first Big Ten Championship since 2004. After the season, Jim Harbaugh said this is only the beginning for the program. The coaches will have a lot of talent to replace in 2022, but there does seem to be more stability in Ann Arbor than there has been in quite some time. — Tom VanHaaren
4. Ohio State Buckeyes (11-2)
The Rose Bowl showed a bit of everything — why the Buckeyes ultimately didn’t win the Big Ten, why they could have been an interesting CFP threat and why they should contend for a national title in 2022. The defense remained mostly bad, as Utah’s offense piled up yards and points in the first half, finishing with a balanced performance (237 pass yards, 226 rush yards). Although Ohio State was better in the second half, new coordinator Jim Knowles has a lot of work ahead. A moderate upgrade should be enough to complement an offense that lit up Utah even without receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Quarterback C.J. Stroud punctuated his season-long development with a historic performance (573 pass yards, six touchdowns), while wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba’s bowl-record 347 receiving yards could stand for a long time. Stroud, Smith-Njigba and running back TreVeyon Henderson could form the nation’s top triple-threat in 2022 as the Buckeyes chase a championship. — Adam Rittenberg
5. Cincinnati Bearcats (13-1)
No one will soon forget what Cincinnati accomplished in 2021, as the first Group of 5 team to make the College Football Playoff. Though the outcome against Alabama in the CFP Semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic is not what anybody in Cincinnati wanted, perspective is in order: a 13-1 season, the greatest in school history, a second straight conference championship, a playoff berth and Coach of the Year honors for Luke Fickell. The foundation has been set, but this will be a new-look Bearcats team in 2022 with veteran players Desmond Ridder, Jerome Ford, Ahmad Gardner, Coby Bryant and many others moving on. — Andrea Adelson
6. Baylor Bears (12-2)
Dave Aranda’s Bears broke through with a Big 12 title, a Sugar Bowl victory and the school’s first 12-win season in 2021, and while the Big 12 could end up just as tight and competitive next fall, Baylor is well-stocked for further contention. Quarterback Gerry Bohanon should return after fighting off injuries to finish a decent 35th in Total QBR, and perhaps more importantly, both the offensive and defensive lines will be stocked with experience. Four starting O-linemen are scheduled to return, as is the entire two-deep on the D-line. Gabe Hall gives them a proven star pass-rusher. The secondary will undergo a remodeling job, which could spell trouble, but Baylor will boast depth and star power. — Bill Connelly
7. Oklahoma State Cowboys (12-2)
A very experienced Cowboys team came within inches of winning a Big 12 championship, only to be stopped short of the goal-line on fourth down by Baylor. But Mike Gundy just completed one of the greatest seasons in OSU history with a Fiesta Bowl victory over Notre Dame. He loses defensive coordinator Jim Knowles, who produced one of the nation’s stingiest units, to Ohio State along with uber-productive stars like linebackers Malcolm Rodriguez (more than 400 career tackles) and Devin Harper. Quarterback Spencer Sanders returns as one of the country’s most intriguing players. He was unstoppable against Notre Dame with 496 total yards, but threw seven interceptions in two games against Baylor. Gundy has a strong track record of hiring off-the-radar coordinators (like Knowles) and hasn’t decided on a replacement yet. But this year was a reminder that you can never count the Cowboys out. In Gundy’s 17 seasons, they’ve won 10 or more games seven times. A 12-2 record with a rivalry win over the dreaded Sooners and a 21-point comeback against Notre Dame is worthy of celebration. — Dave Wilson
8. Notre Dame Fighting Irish (11-2)
The Irish finished the regular season with one loss to Cincinnati, who made the College Football Playoff. The team then saw coach Brian Kelly leave for LSU, and defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman took over. The new coaches will have some talent to replace in 2022, with quarterback Jack Coan, running back Kyren Williams and safety Kyle Hamilton all leaving. Freeman is returning quite a bit, though, getting good news recently with defensive end Isaiah Foskey announcing his return to the school. Freeman should have a good nucleus of players with talent and experience returning, combined with younger players and the talented recruits he has coming in for 2022. That should give Freeman a chance to have success in his first full season as coach. — Tom VanHaaren
9. Michigan State Spartans (11-2)
The Spartans had an incredible turnaround, winning 11 games after winning only two in 2020. Coach Mel Tucker utilized the transfer portal perfectly to help fill needs immediately and found a few gems, including running back Kenneth Walker III. The Spartans went from being ranked No. 123 in rushing yards per game in 2020, to 53 in 2021. The staff created a new blueprint for coaches on how to rebuild a roster quickly through the transfer portal, but it wasn’t just transfers that helped the team win. Quarterback Payton Thorne came into his own and had an excellent season, finishing 23rd in total pass yards. The Spartans will need to shore up the secondary on defense and replace Walker’s production at running back, but Tucker has built a solid foundation. He added good pieces in recruiting and the portal, so they should see similar success in 2022. — Tom VanHaaren
10. Utah Utes (10-4)
The Utes had already established themselves as one of the most consistent performers in the Pac-12 since arriving in 2011, but a conference title had remained elusive until this year. An early-season quarterback change to Cameron Rising set the tone for a strong final three-fourths of the season, which saw the Utes rout Oregon twice down the stretch, including in the first conference title game to be held in Las Vegas. The season ended with a 48-45 loss to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl — a game that will be remembered as one of the best in the Grandaddy’s legendary history. More than anything, the season will be a testament to the players’ ability to honor the memory of both Ty Jordan and Aaron Lowe. — Kyle Bonagura
11. Ole Miss Rebels (10-3)
Lane Kiffin’s second year in Oxford couldn’t have gone much better. The Rebels pulled off a 10-win regular season for the first time in program history, and a Sugar Bowl appearance. It got Kiffin a new contract (much like many other high-profile coaches in the sport) to remain with the school, averaging in the $7.5 million range annually. The season didn’t end the way they wanted to, after quarterback Matt Corral suffered an injury in the first quarter of the Sugar Bowl against Baylor, a game they ultimately lost. With Corral off to the NFL, Ole Miss won’t look the same in 2022, but the program is likely feeling as secure as ever with Kiffin at the helm. — Harry Lyles Jr.
12. Oklahoma Sooners (11-2)
A season that ended with Bob Stoops celebrating a bowl victory seems like a normal year for the Sooners, except that season was in 2021. The Sooners’ preseason Heisman favorite at QB, Spencer Rattler, was benched and transferred to South Carolina. His replacement, Caleb Williams, became an instant star with a legendary rally against Texas in Dallas. But the Sooners lost to Baylor and Oklahoma State, their first Bedlam loss since 2014, and then Lincoln Riley went west to USC. The upside is there is considerable enthusiasm for the return of new coach Brent Venables, and OU held together a solid recruiting class despite some key defections to the Trojans. The bad news is Williams went into the portal and is shopping around, as is Mario Williams, another top recruit at WR. Venables and new offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby landed UCF QB Dillon Gabriel. But other than that, it’s fair to say we don’t know what to expect — or who will be playing — with the Sooners right now. It’s truly a new era in Norman. — Dave Wilson
13. Pittsburgh Panthers (11-3)
The encore will be tricky, but after a stirring breakthrough in 2021, Pat Narduzzi’s Panthers should still have quite a bit to offer moving forward. The Panthers won 11 games for the first time in 40 years and scored their first ACC title since joining the conference in 2013. They lose star quarterback Kenny Pickett and offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, but Biletnikoff winner Jordan Addison was a sophomore, USC quarterback transfer Kedon Slovis is coming to town, and while the team awaits the stay-or-go-pro decision of star end Habakkuk Baldonado, the pass rush should still be top-notch with the likely return of tackle Calijah Kancey and end Deslin Alexandre. Narduzzi has slowly built a program full of athleticism and attitude, and the 2022 Panthers should have plenty of both. — Bill Connelly
14. Wake Forest Demon Deacons (11-3)
The Demon Deacons opened 2021 with the motto “Good to great,” but they ended up doing more than that, putting together a historic season that ended with 11 wins — just the second team in program history to win double-digit games. They capped it off in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl after finding a replacement opponent in Rutgers after Texas A&M bowed out with coronavirus issues. Sam Hartman had 50 total touchdowns, just the third quarterback in ACC history to reach that mark. Hartman will be back in 2022, along with a new defensive coordinator in Brad Lambert. But the expectations will be higher after such a successful season. — Andrea Adelson
15. Clemson Tigers (10-3)
The Tigers struggled to find any offensive consistency for much of the season and were held to fewer than 20 points in regulation in six of their 13 games. All eyes will be on the quarterback position and rising junior DJ Uiagalelei next season as well as a Clemson coaching staff that has been revamped. Staff continuity has been a constant under Dabo Swinney, but he lost offensive coordinator Tony Elliott to the Virginia head job and defensive coordinator Brent Venables to the Oklahoma head job. Swinney promoted from within to fill both positions — quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter replacing Elliott and senior defensive assistant Wes Goodwin moving from an analyst’s role to replace Venables. The Tigers ended the 2021 season on a six-game winning streak to ensure their 10th consecutive season of 10 or more wins. — Chris Low
16. NC State Wolfpack (9-3)
The Wolfpack went to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego to try and win a 10th game for just the second time in school history, but the game was canceled just hours before kickoff because UCLA had coronavirus issues. So NC State took matters into its own hands and decided it would count the game as a 10th win in its official record books, even though the NCAA did not declare the game a forfeit. So this 2021 season will forever have an asterisk next to it for that reason alone. Beyond that, NC State put together a historic season, with wins over Clemson, Florida State and North Carolina — and the Wolfpack could be even better in 2022 with players like quarterback Devin Leary, linebackers Drake Thomas and Isaiah Moore and All-ACC defensive tackle Cory Durden returning. — Andrea Adelson
17. Kentucky Wildcats (10-3)
In the 60 years before Mark Stoops’ arrival, Kentucky had won 10 games once. The Wildcats have now done so twice in the last four years. Quarterback Will Levis and star running back Chris Rodriguez are likely to return in 2022, but UK’s ability to live up to increasing expectations next fall will likely be determined by new starters everywhere else. The offensive and defensive lines will get hit by attrition, and stars like receiver Wan’Dale Robinson and safety Yusuf Corker have declared for the draft. Stoops has dealt with turnover before, of course, and the team has as strong an identity as anyone in the SEC East outside of Georgia. If there’s a drop-off, it probably won’t be very steep. — Bill Connelly
18. Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns (13-1)
The Ragin’ Cajuns closed out the Billy Napier era with a 13-1 record, and a transfer of power as seamless as a college football program could have with Michael Desormeaux being promoted from offensive coordinator. They closed out their season with a 36-21 win in the New Orleans Bowl over future Sun Belt foe Marshall in Desormeaux’s first game. They’ll look different next season, as running backs Montrell Johnson and Emani Bailey, right guard O’Cyrus Torrence and cornerback Mekhi Garner all entered the transfer portal. Of course, some of the coaching staff also left with Napier to Florida. But there’s no doubt that Napier left the school in solid standing after three consecutive (and the school’s only) seasons of 10+ wins. — Harry Lyles Jr.
19. BYU Cougars (10-3)
A 5-0 record against the Pac-12, including a win against rival Utah — the Pac-12 champion — gives the Cougars regional bragging rights. A loss to UAB in the Independence Bowl, however, was a sour note to end the season. Tyler Allgeier’s 1,606 rushing yards ranked third nationally, and his 23 rushing scores were the most in the country. With coach Kalani Sitake locked up with a long term contract and passage to the Big 12 secure, the future of BYU football has seldom been so bright. — Kyle Bonagura
20. Houston Cougars (12-2)
The Cougars were one of the better turnaround jobs in college football in 2021. Dana Holgorsen, who went 3-5 in his second year as head coach in 2020 led the Cougars to a 12-2 record. While his teams are notorious for having a potent offense, his defense, led by first-year coordinator Doug Belk, was one of the toughest units in the country. Despite losing decidedly to Cincinnati in the AAC title game, they were able to knock off Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl 17-13. One of the biggest things to watch with Holgorsen’s program moving forward, is how the move to the Big 12 in 2023 will impact them. — Harry Lyles Jr.
21. Oregon Ducks (10-4)
Things will look a lot different in Eugene this coming season, but given the transition the program has had to deal with the last month or so, they are set up well to continue their success. Upon hiring Georgia’s Dan Lanning to replace Mario Cristobal, the Ducks made one thing clear: They wanted to further what Cristobal had started, not change it. With Lanning coming from Georgia and bringing with him assistants from all over the sport, including the NFL, Oregon’s recruiting should not suffer. It will be fascinating to see how Lanning is able to handle all of the other responsibilities that come with being a first-time head coach and how he’ll transfer his SEC pedigree to a Pac-12 program, especially after losing Kayvon Thibodeaux to the NFL. So far, there’s been telling signs. Beyond the hirings Lanning has made to round out his staff, Oregon did get a commitment from an SEC quarterback in Auburn’s Bo Nix. The fit, at first glance, is unique to say the least, but after the Ducks struggled to find consistent quarterback play this season, Nix’s style should be a needed shot in the arm. — Paolo Uggetti
22. Arkansas Razorbacks (9-4)
In two seasons, Sam Pittman has done a remarkable job of turning around an Arkansas program that was floundering when he arrived. The Hogs capped a nine-win season with a 24-10 win over Penn State in the Outback Bowl. They lost to Alabama by a touchdown and to Ole Miss by a point in a wild 52-51 affair when Arkansas went for the win and failed to convert a 2-point conversion at the end of the game. So a nine-win season was close to being even better, and Pittman has surrounded himself with the kind of staff that should keep the Hogs relevant in an SEC Western Division that remains one of the toughest divisions in college football. — Chris Low
23. Wisconsin Badgers (9-4)
After a dismal 1-3 start, Paul Chryst’s Badgers rebounded to finish 9-4 with a Las Vegas Bowl win, and did so in a very Wisconsin way. Freshman running back Braelon Allen exploded for 1,268 yards, 1,219 of which came during Wisconsin’s 8-1 finish, and after allowing 26 points per game over the first four contests, the Badgers settled down and allowed 12 per game from then on out. They are awaiting a number of stay-or-go decisions from players who were listed as seniors this year, but Allen’s return gives them a focal point, and the Badger identity that has remained so steady and won so many games over the last three decades will be very much intact in 2022. — Bill Connelly
24. Iowa Hawkeyes (10-4)
A season that saw the Hawkeyes rise as high as No. 2 nationally ended with frustration and more questions about the program’s direction, especially on offense. Iowa’s revived run game behind Gavin Williams and Leshon Williams propelled the team to a fourth-quarter lead in the Citrus Bowl. But an injury to All-America center Tyler Linderbaum and Iowa’s decision not to attempt a potential game-clinching fourth-and-1 opened the door for Kentucky to rally. Iowa’s normally stout defense folded against Wan’Dale Robinson, and then Spencer Petras’ third interception sealed the loss for the Hawkeyes. The team’s trajectory on defense and special teams remains promising, but without significantly better quarterback play in 2022, Iowa will have a hard time taking the next step as a program. — Adam Rittenberg
25. Texas A&M Aggies (8-4)
After a roller-coaster of a season in which the highly touted Aggies lost four games but beat Alabama, Jimbo Fisher loaded up with the best recruiting class in Texas A&M history. Fisher has a talented roster, but there is another year of uncertainty at quarterback, a year after losing starter Haynes King to injury and his replacement, Zach Calzada, who had the game of his life against the Tide and then transferred to Auburn after the season. LSU transfer Max Johnson enters the mix along with King and coveted recruit Conner Weigman. Defensive coordinator Mike Elko landed a head-coaching gig at Duke, and Fisher replaced him with D.J. Durkin from Ole Miss. The Aggies will be highly ranked again next season, with a defense that could be among the country’s best. But the offense was inconsistent, and the hope is they have the pieces to finally unleash some of their skill weapons. — Dave Wilson
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