College football’s postseason is the subject of annual debate, as naysayers lament its expansion to afor the 2022-23 season and claim that bowls just don’t mean what they used to mean. With many star players choosing to forgo bowls because of health concerns and coaching transitions, there is little doubt that merely reaching a bowl game isn’t always a grand reward for a great season. Sometimes, it’s just an exhibition at the end of a mediocre season.
For the few dozen teams every year that miss out on a bowl game, however, getting back to one can be a particularly meaningful accomplishment. Just look at South Carolina, which snapped a two-year bowl drought in 2021 with a 6-6 regular-season record and beat border rival North Carolina 38-21 in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. The Gamecocks weren’t expected to do much in coach Shane Beamer’s first season, but reaching (and winning) a bowl game validated the program’s hiring of a beloved former assistant.
As the 2022 season approaches and the disrupted 2020 season – along with its disjointed bowl season – fade further into the background, the sport’s normal rhythms have returned. That means bowl trips are expected at some programs, and there are some strong brands looking to snap bowl streaks in the season ahead.
So what are the programs most likely to return to bowl games after missing them last season? Here are the picks broken out into tiers.
These teams look like sure bets to reach bowl games in the 2022 season
USC: On the heels of a 4-8 season – the program’s worst since 1991 – first-year coach Lincoln Riley has restocked the roster with a bevy of playmakers to ensure the Trojans make a quick return to respectability. The College Football Playoff talk could wind up looking premature, but it would be an absolute stunner if USC isn’t back in a bowl game. The last time USC finished with a losing record in consecutive seasons was 1960 and 1961. With Oklahoma transfer Caleb Williams at quarterback, former Oregon star Travis Dye at running back and reigning Biletnikoff Winner and Pittsburgh transfer Jordan Addison among a bevy of talented wide receivers, USC should be elite enough offensively to overcome a questionable defense and put 2021’s losing record in the rearview.
Texas: The Longhorns finished 5-7 under Charlie Strong in 2015 and 2016, so there is a recent precedent for missing bowls in consecutive seasons. But with some of the nation’s top skill talent in running back Bijan Robinson and receiver Xavier Worthy playing with a potential star QB – albeit an unproven one – in Quinn Ewers, this team is a safe bet to go bowling in Year 2 under Steve Sarkisian. If the defense stinks again, former TCU coach Gary Patterson is now on staff to help steady the ship.
Florida State: The Seminoles have finished with a losing record in four consecutive seasons, which is stunning for a brand-name program that posted a 27-1 record over the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Merely making a bowl may not be enough to save third-year coach Mike Norvell’s job, but the Seminoles seem likely to at least reach that threshold in 2022. At minimum, FSU should go 2-2 in nonconference games versus the 1-3 mark it posted last season. From there, even a repeat of last season’s 4-4 mark in ACC play would get the ‘Noles to a bowl.
You would think these programs wind up bowling in 2022, but there is at least some reason for pause
Washington: You would think Washington is bound for bowl eligibility with a schedule that starts with Kent State and Portland State and avoids USC and Utah. However, the Huskies had a similarly favorable league slate last season and stumbled to a 4-8 mark. With offensive mind Kalen DeBoer in for Jimmy Lake as head coach, Washington should start finding the end zone again and make a quick return to competency. The defense may take a step back in the post-Lake era, but with former first-team All-Pac 12 defensive end Zion Tupuola-Fetui back after an injury-plagued 2021 season, the cupboard is not bare.
Nebraska: The Cornhuskers drew heavyweights Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State from the Big Ten East last season and lost those three games by a combined 15 points while struggling to an 0-7 mark in one-possession games during a 3-9 season. The Wolverines are still on the schedule, but with Indiana and Rutgers serving as the Cornhuskers’ other cross-division foes, you would think they could finally reach bowl eligibility in coach Scott Frost’s fifth season. Much of Nebraska’s ambition appears to hinge on how first-year offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, who arrives from Pittsburgh, works with quarterback Casey Thompson, who transferred in from Texas.
Troy: The Trojans return significant production for first-year coach Jon Sumrall, who was previously on staff during some of the heights of Neal Brown’s tenure. Defensively, a front seven led by first-team All-Sun Belt performers Javon Solomon and Carlton Martial should be nasty. Offensively, there is some work to be done for new coordinator Joe Craddock with a unit that ranked 109th in total offense last season. But with running back Kimani Vidal and receiver Tez Johnson back after flashing star power last season, the unit should be better.
If the breaks go right
These teams will get back to bowl games so long as they get a couple breaks
Northwestern: The dawn of Name, Image and Likeness and mass transferring has prompted some predictions of competitive extinction for schools with high academic standards like Northwestern that also register on the lower end of booster fanaticism. If a couple breaks go right, though, the Wildcats will be right back in a bowl game after the 2022 season. Coach Pat Fitzgerald has been too steady as he enters his 17th season to allow a repeat of last season’s 3-9 fiasco. The offensive line is well-fortified, and the skill positions are talented enough – highlighted by returning 1,000-yard rusher Evan Hull – for Northwestern to find three Big Ten victories to accompany what should be a 3-0 nonconference record against Duke, Southern Illinois and Miami (Ohio).
TCU: The Horned Frogs are just 16-18 over the past three seasons and begin this season with someone other than Gary Patterson as head coach for the first time since 2000. If things break right, however, they’ll be right back in a bowl game under Sonny Dykes, as some nice talent remains on the roster. The defense disintegrated under Patterson last season, but it star cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson is back along with a menace on the end in Dylan Horton. Otherwise, a solid crop of transfers should help flush the horror of 2021 from the defense’s system. Offensively, receiver Quentin Johnson is ready for a breakout season and will be catching passes from either undersized redshirt freshman Chandler Morris or veteran Max Duggan. Both are quality options who can help guide TCU back to a bowl.
FAU: It’s Year 3 for Willie Taggart at FAU, and with Miami transfer N’Kosi Perry back for his second season as the starting QB, look for the Owls to go bowling again. This team was on the cusp last season before losing its final four games, so it’s not as if there’s some huge step to take. So long as FAU avoids a catastrophic run of injuries, the schedule is manageable enough to put a bowl appearance well within reach. Taggart and his new defensive coordinator, Todd Orlando, were regarded as rising stars just six or seven years ago. Both have fallen on hard times, but the bet here is that they find some success this season.
Long shot pick
Never say never
Akron: This is a real long shot, but give it a chance. Joe Moorhead takes over a program that was just 3-27 over the past three seasons, and he’s been hitting the portal like a madman. The Zips landed 11 Power Five transfers among their haul, including some players with proven track records. Shocky Jacques-Louis caught 83 passes for 1,010 yards in four seasons at Pitt, and safety Kerry Martin made 50 tackles as a freshman at West Virginia in 2019. The new players combine with some decent returners in key spots to give the Zips a chance to complete what would be a miraculous turnaround. A bowl berth is admittedly far fetched, but this team should be nearly unrecognizable and ought to win as many games as it did over the past three seasons combined (or more).