A nagging concern I have about each Playoff contender
The 3rd Playoff rankings were released Tuesday night.
As expected, there weren’t many surprises. The top 7 stayed exactly the same. The top 10 teams last week remained in the top 10 this week, the final 3 in a slightly different order.
Considering No. 5 Alabama’s new reality, the top 4 teams seemingly have separated themselves from everybody else, but they realize they’re a loss from being on the outside looking in.
Everybody in the top 10 has at least one glaring issue that could knock them out, too.
It’s the defense, obviously. I’ve been so enamored with Joe Burrow and this historic passing game that I’ve all but excused how sloppy the Tigers have been defensively.
It doesn’t make sense, either. Each level contains NFL talent. The secondary alone might have 4 future NFL players. It hasn’t mattered, yet. But expecting Burrow and Co. to keep winning 45-42 shootouts is a dangerous way to plan a parade.
Ohio State and Clemson, in particular, have enough balance and explosiveness to keep pace — and defenses that are capable of getting a timely stop. The Tigers have to clean it up.
2. Ohio State
Rookies, rookies everywhere. First-year head coach and first-time starting quarterback. Some national champions have had one or the other, but I can’t remember one that had both.
We’ve seen freshman QBs get to the national championship in each of the past 3 years. The past 2 years, a freshman QB either came off the bench to win the title (Tua Tagovailoa) or just dropped the hammer from the opening whistle (Trevor Lawrence).
So maybe Justin Fields isn’t as big of a question as how Ryan Day will match wits with more proven head coaches.
Did the ACC prepare Clemson for what lies ahead? In fairness, you could have asked the same question last season, but that Tigers team was far more experienced in the trenches, which it showed in the most dominating Playoff run in the format’s history.
Clemson’s playmakers are all back and the offense is playing better than anybody else in the country, LSU included. But the Tigers still replaced a lot of starters up front on both sides of the ball, and it’s fair to wonder how they’ll hold up once they stare across the line at players who are just as good as they are.
Can the Dawgs score 30 points against a Playoff team?
Alabama — in 2017 against Georgia — is the only national champion that failed to score 30 in the title game. The other 4 champions all scored at least 35 when it mattered most.
Georgia has faced 3 ranked teams this season and scored 23, 24 and 21 points.
Georgia has lost back-to-back game to Alabama not because its defense blew a late lead or gave up a late TD but rather because it couldn’t score enough.
The Dawgs were outscored 26-10 after halftime of the 2017 National Championship Game.
They were outscored 21-7 in the 2nd half of last year’s SEC Championship Game.
They didn’t score a point in the 4th quarter in either game.
The Tide stayed No. 5 despite losing Tua Tagovailoa.
It’s impossible to replace the greatest QB in program history, but that’s not Alabama’s biggest problem.
Alabama was still No. 5 despite piling up all of those points. What will the committee think when the offense isn’t nearly as lethal and the defense is every bit as vulnerable?
Alabama’s defense simply isn’t good enough this year to slow down the top 3 Playoff teams.
It’s fine for the committee to live in the moment — though it seems strange that Oklahoma didn’t jump higher if that truly were the case, especially given how high Minnesota jumped after its lone signature win last week.
Committee chair Rob Mullens repeatedly said “this week” when asked about the Tide’s new reality. Reading between the lines, the committee is fully aware this isn’t the same team but wasn’t going to drop them, yet.
Here’s what it will come down to: Can the Tide score enough (say, 42) against an Auburn team that has held 5 ranked teams — including 3 in the Playoff hunt — to 24 points or fewer?
If Mac Jones can do that, no team would have a more impressive performance this season.
The eye test is Oregon’s biggest hurdle. The final 2 regular-season games won’t add much to the résumé. The Ducks have to pound people. Frankly, I’m a little surprised the Ducks are still ahead of Oklahoma and Utah. Clearly the committee loves the blowout win at USC much more than it is concerned about a couple of close calls and the loss against Auburn.
Much like Oregon, Utah can 0nly hurt its case over the remaining 2 weeks. The Utes close with 2 of the worst teams in the Pac-12. The Utes lost at USC, which continues to be the big separator in their head-to-head with Oregon. Fortunately, if chalk holds, they’ll get to settle this in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
The concern, though, is that other teams with tougher closing stretches have an opportunity to pass them both.
8. Penn State
Penn State is one of the teams in perfect position to pass both Pac-12 teams and Alabama. The Nittany Lions’ Playoff hopes could end Saturday at Ohio State, but if they pull off the upset, they’ll all but lock up the Big Ten East and potentially eliminate Ohio State from Playoff contention.
The concern? Trying to beat Ohio State on Saturday in Columbus. The Nittany Lions have played the Buckeyes close the past few years, but Chase Young is back (wink, wink) and nobody has been able to slow down Justin Fields.
Penn State’s secondary looked terrible against Minnesota.
The only worse passing defenses in the Big Ten? Rutgers and Maryland.
Justin Fields is going to have a huge day.
The Sooners’ biggest obstacle is the committee’s lack of respect for the Big 12. It’s been obvious since the initial poll.
Oklahoma knocked off an undefeated Baylor team behind the biggest comeback in program history, on the road, without their top receiver — and was rewarded by moving up exactly 1 spot.
This week’s game against TCU won’t move the needle. The Sooners close against ranked Oklahoma State and then will get a ranked Baylor again in the Big 12 title game.
At this point, it’s fair to wonder whether there is anything the Sooners can do to impress the committee enough to move into the top 4.
The concerns are the schedule and the brand.
It’s an opportunity, sure, but does anybody outside of Minnesota believe the Gophers are going to beat Wisconsin and (likely) Ohio State in the Big Ten title game?
The real intrigue is what happens if Ohio State loses to Penn State and Minnesota beats Wisconsin and Penn State in the Big Ten title game.
The Buckeyes would have 1 loss but a more impressive résumé overall. And obviously the bigger brand.
Does that matter?
Penn State had 2 losses in 2016, but it beat Ohio State head-to-head and won the Big Ten title — and Ohio State still was selected to the Playoff.