With the latest College Football Playoff rankings released and another week in the books, we continue to get a better idea of the Playoff picture.
One team that should feel awfully good about its chances is No. 1 Alabama, fresh off its latest trouncing of the Bayou Bengals.
Remember, offense has been the name of the game in the Playoff, and the average combined score of every Playoff game (including championships games) is 58.66, with the winner of each game averaging 38.08 points per game. Alabama, No. 1 nationally in points per game (51.3), TD passes per game (3.7), total yards per game (565.6) and No. 2 in yards per play (8.2), obviously has the offensive firepower to do some serious damage in the Playoff.
While LSU provided their toughest test, they’re not out of the woods yet in terms of facing elite defenses. They’ll face another physical and athletic defense this week against No. 16 Mississippi State, who has the No. 2 scoring defense in the country (allowing just 12.3 points per game), followed two weeks later with an Iron Bowl matchup against No. 24 Auburn. Say what you will about Auburn’s offense, but its defense has been stout this year, and is 13th nationally allowing 17.3 points per game.
But then they’ll begin their slate against teams with legitimate Playoff aspirations, beginning with the SEC Championship Game.
So, who are 5 potential playoff defenses that can stop Alabama?
Wait, there’s defenses in the Big 12? Well, not really, but one of the better defensive units is from the Appalachian heartland, in Morgantown. If the No. 9 Mountaineers manage to beat Oklahoma two weeks in a row (final regular season game and Big 12 title game), there’s almost no way they’ll be left out of the Playoff. Same goes for Oklahoma if it wins both games (and neither will get in if they split), but their defense is appalling, so let’s focus on West Virginia, which arguably has the best defense in the Big 12.
WVU is near the top of the Big 12 in all of the major defensive categories per game like points allowed (22.3), completions allowed (19.3), passing yards (233.8), rushing yards (137), rushing yards per attempt (3.7) and total yards allowed (370.8).
Before you scoff at those seemingly inflated numbers, remember, Oklahoma put up 48 on Georgia in last year’s Playoff semifinal. Only one other team scored more than 28 against Georgia last season. Big 12 offenses score on everybody. Relatively speaking, holding teams to 22 points is impressive.
Junior OLB David Long has been the most consistent performer of the group, leading the team in tackles (75), TFLs (14) and sacks (4).
Realistically, it’s hard to envision WVU being able to prevent Alabama from putting up a plethora of points, especially as they’re allowing 7.5 yards per pass attempt, but in the Playoff anything can happen.
The No. 3 Irish are 3 wins from clinching their first Playoff spot, assuming they don’t fall victim to an upset at the hands of FSU, No. 13 Syracuse or Southern Cal. The Irish started the year by knocking off Michigan — now No. 4 in the Playoff ranking — and have methodically put away each opponent following that in what has been a decent schedule.
The Notre Dame defense is 19th nationally in points allowed per game (19.3) and has been very strong in pass defense. That’s obviously critical if you’re going to have any chance against Alabama.
The Irish secondary is allowing just 56.1 percent of pass attempts to be completed, and the team is 26th nationally in passing yards allowed per game (188.4) and are 4th in passing TDs allowed per game (0.7). Notre Dame has a talented secondary with a stout front four featuring NFL Draft prospects in DT Jerry Tillery (6 sacks) and DE Khalid Kareem (5.5 sacks) and an absolute beast at ILB in Te’von Coney (80 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, 3 sacks).
Similarly, to WVU (and/or Oklahoma), I just don’t think the Irish ultimately have the depth and quality of athletes necessary to slow down the Tide.
Their opponent in the SEC Championship Game is also the last team to have given the Tide a legitimate run for their money (and dare I say, had it not been for Tagovailoa, they’d be the last team to have beaten the Tide). Granted, the Dawgs’ 2018 defense isn’t quite on the level from last year without guys like Roquan Smith and Lorenzo Carter, but this is still an elite group, one that’s statistically better than the unit Alabama faced in Baton Rouge last week.
Georgia is 10th nationally in points allowed per game (16.4), 11th in passing yards allowed (172.3), 13th in total yards allowed (306.6) and have allowed just 5.5 yards per pass attempt. DC Mel Tucker has done a good job this year of mixing in younger guys (Monty Rice, Richard LeCounte, etc.) with older vets (D’Andre Walker, Deandre Baker, J.R. Reed, etc.), and the team has gained valuable depth as some of the premier talent from two previous monster recruiting classes have gained experience.
For the Dawgs to slow down ‘Bama, they’ll need a really big performance from their defensive line and outside linebackers, which have struggled to consistently generate pressure all year long.
The Wolverines have finally become Playoff contenders in Jim Harbaugh’s 4th season after feasting upon a very average Big Ten slate. Much of their success is due to what is widely considered to be the most dominant defense in the country, and statistically they have been very impressive, allowing just 13.6 points per game and leading the country in many of the major statistical categories like total yards allowed per game (216.2).
Michigan’s pass defense, which is best nationally allowing just 122.3 yards per game, has allowed opposing QBs to complete 47.5 percent of their passes and 4.9 yards per attempt. There’s legitimate talent all three levels, too, with Chase Winovinch (11 TFLs, 4 sacks), Rashan Gary (potential first-round draft pick), Devin Bush (4 sacks), Josh Uche (7 sacks), Josh Metellus (3 INTs), Brandon Watson (3 INTs) and David Long (5 passes defended). DC Don Brown has his defense playing with a lot of confidence right now and they’re dicing up every offense they face.
Granted, the Wolverines haven’t faced a QB or receiving corps like Alabama, and they have feasted on teams that lack speed and athleticism on offense (no, Penn State doesn’t have an elite offense like last year). Shutting down plodding Big Ten rushing attacks is one thing, shutting down a balanced and explosive with elite speed, athleticism and depth like Alabama is another thing entirely. I like Alabama’s chances should they square off.
Ahh, Clemson. It seems like every season comes down to the annual Tigers and Tide matchup, and there’s a good chance this year will end with Part IV. Not only do the Tigers have the benefit of playing in the ACC, which has been awful this year, but they seem to be hitting their stride at the right time of the season behind star freshman QB Trevor Lawrence. Their chances of winning out and reaching the Playoff seem nearly as probable as Alabama’s, and assuming they each dispatch of their slower Midwestern counterparts, Michigan and Notre Dame, they’ll meet in the title game for the third time in 4 years.
I think this is the one defense that could give Alabama’s offense legitimate troubles, and it’s because of their insanely talented defensive line.
The Tigers defensive line features 4 potential first-round draft picks with Clelin Ferrell (12.5 TFLs, 7.5 sacks) and Austin Bryant (4 sacks) on the outside and Christian Wilkins (8.5 TFLs, 2.5 sacks) and Dexter Lawrence (1.5 TFL, 1 INT) on the inside. This line can apply pressure without help from blitzing LBs, penetrate the pocket and stuff the run, allowing 7 to drop into coverage in the backend.
Ultimately, Clemson appears to be the one team nationally that could give Alabama a fight. They have a difference-maker at QB, a powerful rushing attack, a deep receiving corps, an historically great defensive line and a solid secondary. Fingers crossed we saw the latest matchup between these two juggernauts.