The 5 best teams in college football right now
Following six weeks of play, Steve Palazzolo shares which teams have set themselves up for the College Football Playoff.
The 5 best teams in college football right now
Only six weeks into the college football season and there are five clear teams in contention for the College Football Playoff, with a few others on the outside looking in. It’s rare to have this much separation at the top this early in the season, but five teams have a clear path and two of the five – Ohio State and Michigan – will play each other at the end of the regular season.
Among the other three, Alabama and Clemson are essentially playing with house money. Both teams can likely suffer a regular-season slip up while still making their respective conference title games and it would take a lot to put the playoff out of reach for either team. Schedule-wise, Washington likely has the most difficult road with a few challenging games along the way.
Here are the five best teams in college football with a close look at our overall team grades, which are not adjusted for competition but bring good insight as to a team’s strengths and weaknesses.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
There are few weaknesses on Alabama’s roster and it’s scary that they may just be getting better. True freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts continues to improve every week and his development as a passer could take Alabama toward unbeatable status. He has plenty of weapons in wide receivers Calvin Ridley (team-high four receiving touchdowns) and ArDarius Stewart (team-high 18.1 yards per reception) as well as running back Damien Harris (8.7 yards per attempt). Keep an eye on true freshman Joshua Jacobs, who’s already forced 11 missed tackles on his 37 rushes and another seven misses on his five receptions while adding yet another big-play option to the offense.
However, it’s the defense that gets most of the accolades, and rightfully so. It all starts up front with the pass rush where Alabama is pressuring opposing quarterbacks on 51.2 percent of their dropbacks, dwarfing the NCAA average of 29.5 percent. Bookend edge rushers Tim Williams (26 pressures on 110 rushes, 23.6 percent) and Ryan Anderson (25 pressures on 135 rushes, 18.5 percent) lead the way while DE Jonathan Allen is right behind them with 23 pressures on his 180 rushes from all along the defensive line. Singling out every top player would take all day, but linebacker Reuben Foster has the nation’s top grade at 90.4 while slot cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick is coming off a monster day that has vaulted him into the top 10 among cornerbacks.
With pieces at every level of the defense, a plethora of playmakers, and a developing freshman quarterback, Alabama has done little to instill any doubt they’re the team to beat and the favorite to repeat as national champions.
2. Ohio State Buckeyes
The Buckeyes have exceeded my expectations to this point, carrying on as if they hadn’t come into the season with a roster depleted by the NFL draft. Instead, they’ve bred new stars on both sides of the ball, from running back/slot receiver Curtis Samuel (77.8 season grade) to safety Malik Hooker (83.2) to cornerback Marshon Lattimore (87.1). Rather than easing into the season and showing their inexperience, Ohio State stormed out of the gates and looked like a championship team early in the season, including a decisive win on the road against Oklahoma in Week 3.
At the helm is quarterback J.T. Barrett, who has received unwarranted Heisman hype though he’s done a fine job of distributing the ball to his various playmakers, from Samuel to fellow hybrid RB/slot Dontre Wilson to emerging star wide receiver Noah Brown. Not to be overlooked is the work of the offensive line, where an inexperienced unit has come together to post the best run-blocking grade among all Power-5 teams.
On the defensive side, players like Hooker and Lattimore have emerged as stars but it’s LB Raekwon McMillan who has remained a rock in the middle (83.8 season grade). The defensive line has a number of budding stars, including true freshman Nick Bosa who is coming off a season-high 30 snaps and has raised his season grade to 81.5. Perhaps most impressive on the defensive side is just how dominant the Buckeyes have been on the back end. Opposing quarterbacks are 3-for-24 for 109 yards, no touchdowns and five interceptions on passes thrown at least 20 yards in the air. Overall, opposing quarterbacks have an NFL passer rating of 41.7 against the Ohio State defense, and the domination of the pass defense is the story of the season for the Buckeyes to this point.
3. Clemson Tigers
Armed with as a deep and talented group of playmakers, Clemson’s offense got off to a slow start but they’ve rectified any early-season issues. Quarterback Deshaun Watson has not played up to his lofty expectations, but he didn’t truly heat up until about Week 9 last season when he was the nation’s top quarterback over the second half of the year and into the playoffs. That’s a scary proposition if that trend continues, because he has a good mix of deep threats in wide receivers Mike Williams and Deon Cain as well as after-the-catch stars in Artavis Scott and Ray-Ray McCloud. Throw in running back Wayne Gallman and Watson’s ability to double as a runner in the designed run game and Clemson’s offense is the nation’s most difficult to defend when it’s tapping into all of its pieces.
On the other side, the defense has once again overcome enormous attrition to the NFL draft as they’ve sent stars to the league the last two years. Like Ohio State, new stars have emerged as DT Dexter Lawrence is not only the top true freshman in the country but one of the overall best interior defensive linemen. Meanwhile, fellow defensive lineman Christian Wilkins has taken his 300-pound frame to more of an edge role and excelled there as well. In the secondary, CB Cordrea Tankersley is one of the nation’s best at 86.1 while safety Jadar Johnson has been a playmaker with three interceptions and two passes defensed.
As impressive as the defense has been — and they deserve credit for slowing down Heisman leader Lamar Jackson back in Week 5 — it’s the offense that will carry this team. As Clemson taps back into Watson’s ability in the designed run game, it’s nearly impossible for defenses to keep up with the motion, misdirection and downfield playmaking ability of Clemson’s playmakers.
4. Michigan Wolverines
It’s all about the defense in Michigan as they boast the nation’s deepest defensive line, a playmaking secondary, and an all-everything Heisman candidate in Jabrill Peppers. Like Alabama, they’ve laughed at the NCAA average of pressuring the quarterback on 29.5 percent of dropbacks, getting into the backfield 54.0 percent of the time. It’s defensive end Chris Wormley leading the way with 19 pressures but Michigan features seven players with at least double digit pressures as they’ve spread the wealth along the defensive front. The pressure has helped the secondary which is grading well across the board and their leader is CB Jourdan Lewis who has been targeted 10 times in his three games and surrendered only two catches for seven yards.
As for Peppers — call him a linebacker, safety, running back or punt returner — he is an impact player for Michigan on both sides of the ball. He leads the team with 17 stops to go with an 86.1 grade against the run while showing the ability to cover the slot or from linebacker depth. A punt return for a touchdown against Colorado is just what Peppers needed for his Heisman hype and a negated return against Rutgers should not go overlooked as he brings as unique of a skillset as any player in the country.
The big questions for Michigan remain on the offensive side of the ball where they’ve used a committee approach to run the ball effectively but the passing game may have issues against better competition unless QB Wilton Speight improves. It’s the same story as last year where QB Jake Rudock had a rough first half, but he turned things around about halfway through the season. A similar turn for Speight could work wonders for Michigan who boasts a championship defense and simply needs the offense to complement their dominance.
5. Washington Huskies
The offseason darling has lived up to the hype on both sides of the ball. We touted Washington as a playoff darkhorse back in April. They’ve been one of the most physical teams up front defensively as they have two of the top seven interior run defenders in Greg Gaines and Elijah Qualls along with the No. 3 Power-5 edge defender at 87.2 overall as he has four sacks, four QB hits, and 19 hurries on his 121 rushes. They’re the tone setters up front while CB Sidney Jones (85.1) has been a top-20 cornerback and Budda Baker (78.6) has played well. Washington’s defense was littered with solid players last year and they’ve all taken the next step this season and they’re a big reason the Huskies are in the thick of the playoff picture.
The offense is no slouch either, led by Heisman candidate Jake Browning who spreads the ball around with precision win Washington’s offense. His 80.5 overall grade ranks sixth among power-5 quarterbacks and his passer rating when throwing to WR John Ross is 147.5, third-best in the Power-5. Ross has turned nine deep ball attempts into four touchdowns as he brings a big-play element to the offense. At running back, Myles Gaskin has built on a strong true freshman year that saw him grade better than all of his classmates and he’s gotten some help from Lavon Coleman and Jomon Dotson.
Top to bottom, this Washington team can compete with the nation’s best and now it’s simply a matter of surviving the weekly grind that the Pac-12 brings. If they can, look for Washington to possibly slide into the top four at the end of the season.