Now is when it gets good. With teams playing their third and fourth games of the tournament, depth and talent usually win out.
We’re down to 16 teams (AKA the Sweet 16) in ESPN’s 2022 fictional NCAA football tournament.
The early rounds have already provided some memorable moments, including game-winning field goals, record performances and smothering defensive efforts. All four No. 1 seeds are still alive: Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and Michigan. The lowest remaining seed is No. 6 Kentucky.
To recap, the original seeds were based to some degree on ESPN’s latest SP + projections entering the 2022 season. Some fascinating storylines await, so let’s finish football’s version of a 64-team tournament, and just maybe, motivate the sport’s brass to quit dawdling around and expand the playoff.
(1) Alabama 38, (5) Arkansas 16: The Crimson Tide won the regular-season game in Fayetteville between these two teams despite quarterback Bryce Young being held way below his season passing average. But it’s back to the real Young in this matchup, and he throws a pair of first-quarter touchdown passes and leaves the rest to Alabama’s ferocious defense.
(3) NC State 28, (2) Utah 24: The Wolfpack captured their first ACC championship since 1979 in the regular season, which had been a long time coming for Pack fans. But their biggest win in decades comes in this matchup of two physical, well-coached teams that isn’t decided until the fourth quarter when quarterback Devin Leary sneaks across the goal line from just inside the 1. It’s on to the Elite Eight for Dave Doeren and the Pack.
(1) Alabama 41, (3) NC State 21: For the first time in the tournament, Alabama’s defense gives up more than 20 points, although one of NC State’s touchdowns comes inside the final five minutes when the outcome has already been decided. The story of the game is that the Wolfpack simply can’t protect Leary well enough to put together any drives against a Tide defense that finishes with six sacks and two forced fumbles.
HOW WE GOT HERE
First round: (1) Alabama over (16) Liberty, (2) Utah over (15) Memphis, (3) NC State over (14) Oregon State, (13) Appalachian State over (4) Florida, (5) Arkansas over (12 ) TCU, (6) Iowa over (11) North Carolina, (7) South Carolina over (10) Louisville, (9) Texas over (8) Florida State
Second round: (1) Alabama over (9) Texas, (2) Utah over (7) South Carolina, (3) NC State over (6) Iowa, (5) Arkansas over (13) Appalachian State
(1) Ohio State 30, (4) Oklahoma State 14: Sifting through the collection of playmakers on offense for Ohio State is a headache for any opposing defensive coordinator. Everywhere you look, there’s somebody who can score from long distance. But overlooked on this Ohio State team is an offensive line that just gets increasingly better as the season progresses and plays its best game yet, as the Buckeyes keep the ball away from the Cowboys and Spencer Sanders.
(3) Cincinnati 24, (2) Notre Dame 20: How intriguing is this matchup? Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell and Notre Dame’s Marcus Freeman have a relationship that spans nearly 20 years. Freeman was Cincinnati’s defensive coordinator under Fickell before going to Notre Dame. Fickell recruited Freeman to Ohio State and then coached him there. These two teams met in the regular season a year ago with the Bearcats winning, but Freeman was Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator. Now, he’s the head coach. The game goes down to the final minutes, but the mentor gets the best of his pupil by him.
(1) Ohio State 34, (3) Cincinnati 17: Eager to shed the little brother label in the state of Ohio, Cincinnati takes an early lead with tight end Josh Whyle catching his ninth touchdown pass of the season. But the Bearcats can’t stop the big play, and the Buckeyes break the game open with three touchdowns of 50 yards or longer in the passing game, the last one a 78-yarder to Marvin Harrison Jr., and Ohio State wins its 13th straight game over Cincinnati, with the last loss coming all the way back in 1897.
HOW WE GOT HERE
First round: (1) Ohio State over (16) Toledo, (2) Notre Dame over (15) UTSA, (3) Cincinnati over (14) Marshall, (4) Oklahoma State over (13) San Diego State, (12) Maryland over (5) Michigan State, (6) Tennessee over (11) Nebraska, (10) UCF over (7) Oregon, (9) Minnesota over (8) Mississippi State
Second round: (1) Ohio State over (9) Minnesota, (2) Notre Dame over (10) UCF, (3) Cincinnati over (6) Tennessee, (4) Oklahoma State over (12) Maryland
(1) Georgia 37: (5) Miami 20: The Hurricanes invested in their football program in the offseason like never before and spent big money on their staff, including prying head coach Mario Cristobal away from Oregon. It was a good run for The U and the start of something potentially special in Coral Gables, but Georgia’s defense – even with all the losses to the NFL – is smothering in the second half and holds Miami to just one field goal. Jalen Carter finishes with three sacks.
(2) Texas A&M 34: (6) Kentucky 28: Kentucky quarterback Will Levis flourishes under first-year offensive coordinator Rich Scangarello, and he’s masterful in this game with one clutch third-down completion after another. Texas A & M quarterback Haynes King is equally effective with his ability to find open receivers on key drives, but it’s his toughness and running ability of him that propel the Aggies into the Elite Eight and three wins away from a national title.
(2) Texas A&M 24, (1) Georgia 23: The reverberations from this one can be felt all the way back to Kyle Field and beyond. Jimbo Fisher has racked up blockbuster contracts and marquee recruiting classes in College Station, but he has never had a win that means as much as this one. Fisher’s offense vs. Kirby Smart’s defense produces a back-and-forth classic. Brock Bowers gathers in a leaping touchdown grab in the corner of the end zone to give the Dawgs the lead, but a long kickoff return and then a key fourth-down scramble by King sets up Caden Davis to make the biggest kick of his career, and he nails it from 46 yards to send the Aggies to the Final Four.
HOW WE GOT HERE
First round: (1) Georgia over (16) Syracuse, (2) Texas A&M over (15) Washington, (3) Wisconsin over (14) Western Kentucky, (4) Penn State over (13) Iowa State, (5) Miami over ( 12) Kansas State, (6) Kentucky over (11) SMU, (7) Ole Miss over (10) Arizona State, (8) Houston over (9) UCLA
Second round: (1) Georgia over (8) Houston, (2) Texas A&M over (7) Ole Miss, (6) Kentucky over (3) Wisconsin, (5) Miami over (4) Penn State
(4) USC 38, (1) Michigan 24: Was there ever any doubt that Caleb Williams would end up at USC when Lincoln Riley made the decision to bolt to the West Coast? They were offensive magic together at Oklahoma, and nothing changes at USC. For that matter, Williams is even more polished as a sophomore and carves apart a Michigan defense that feels the pain of losing so many talented defenders to the NFL. Williams passes for two touchdowns and runs for two more to set up a meeting with his old team.
(3) Oklahoma 21, (2) Clemson 17: Talk about familiarity between coaching staffs. First-year Oklahoma coach Brent Venables was Dabo Swinney’s defensive coordinator for 10 years. Clemson’s new defensive coordinator, Wes Goodwin, was Venables’ protégé while working his way up from an analyst’s role. Neither side has a lot of success offensively, as both defenses come to play. Clemson’s defensive line is stifling, but Oklahoma senior linebacker DaShaun White forces a turnover deep in Clemson territory that the Sooners turn into the winning touchdown.
(3) Oklahoma 35, (4) USC 28: Now this is an Elite Eight matchup that stirs emotions and makes for high drama. The Sooners’ defensive plan under Venables and defensive coordinator Ted Roof is excellent, but Riley makes his own adjustments against his old club and creates some mismatches down the field for tight end Malcolm Epps. The Trojans carry a touchdown lead into the fourth quarter, but that’s when the “other” quarterback steals the show. Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby calls a perfect fourth quarter, and his old quarterback at UCF, Dillon Gabriel, outplays Williams and steers OU within two wins of college football’s biggest prize.
HOW WE GOT HERE
First round: (1) Michigan over (16) Army, (2) Clemson over Missouri (15), (3) Oklahoma over (14) Texas Tech, (4) USC over Boise State (13), (12) Fresno State over (5 ) Baylor, (6) Wake Forest over (11) Auburn, (10) Purdue over (7) BYU, (9) Pittsburgh over (8) LSU.
Second round: (1) Michigan over (9) Pittsburgh, (2) Clemson over (10) Purdue, (3) Oklahoma over (6) Wake Forest, (4) USC over (12) Fresno State
(1) Alabama 41, (3) Oklahoma 21: These two teams met in the playoff semifinals to cap the 2018 season, and the Crimson Tide held off Kyler Murray and the Sooners after building a 28-0 lead. Once again, Alabama breaks out to a big lead with Young throwing a pair of first-quarter touchdown passes to do-it-all running back Jahmyr Gibbs, who like Jameson Williams a year ago, makes a huge impact as a transfer. The Alabama defense does the rest, as linebackers Will Anderson Jr. And Dallas Turner combine for six tackles for loss and hold the Sooners to two touchdowns until a final meaningless TD in the waning minutes of the game.
(1) Ohio State 38, (2) Texas A&M 24: There’s no stopping the Buckeyes’ high-powered offense, as they score 30 or more points for the fifth straight game in the tournament. Quarterback CJ Stroud is spectacular, but so are running back TreVeyon Henderson and receivers Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Marvin Harrison Jr. Get the picture? Every time it looks like the Aggies might be on the cusp of making a move in the game, another one of the Buckeyes’ talented playmakers breaks loose for a big play. Ohio State finishes the game with more than 300 yards passing and nearly 200 yards rushing to set up a Big Ten vs. SEC national championship game.
(1) Ohio State 34, (1) Alabama 30: It’s a stunning display of future first-round NFL draft picks. The stars are out on offense, defense, even special teams. Young and Stroud combine for nearly 700 passing yards, and Ohio State is finally able to show that Alabama’s defense is mortal. Nonetheless, Anderson’s strip sack of Stroud sets up a 40-yard field goal by Will Reichard to break a 27-27 tie. But back comes Ohio State, and Smith-Njigba scores on a perfectly thrown corner route from Stroud to give the Buckeyes the lead. The Tide have one last shot, but Young’s 47-yard heave to the end zone is batted away to give Ohio State its first national championship since 2014 and its first under Ryan Day. After the game, both Young and Stroud announce that they will return for their senior seasons after each signing NIL deals reportedly worth $ 30 million.