PFF’s playoff picks following Week 9 of college football

Which teams will make the College Football Playoff? Steve Palazzolo shares his selections following an action-packed weekend.

| 8 months ago
(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

(Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)

PFF’s playoff picks following Week 9 of college football

An entertaining weekend from start to finish, there’s no better way to head into the first College Football Playoff rankings than with a number of tightly-contested games and drama throughout the top 25. We continue to learn a lot about the top teams in the country, but the top four undefeated teams remain the same this week while many of the questionable undefeated teams coming into the weekend were exposed.

There is little argument about the top four teams for the playoff, but Louisville may have something to say about it if they continue to win. Here’s how the College Football Playoff should shake out after Week 9.

  1. Alabama

There’s no question that Alabama is the top team in the land as they’ve won every game rather handily with few scares to threaten their undefeated season along the way. They’re sitting at home on a bye this week, waiting for their No. 1 announcement and prepping for LSU in next week’s CBS primetime matchup. At this point in past years, Alabama was sitting with one loss and working their way back into the mix, but this year, they’ve had little drama and they’ve proven their dominance on a weekly basis.

It starts with the defense which has superstars at every level, but this year’s story has to start with the nation’s top-graded interior defensive lineman Jonathan Allen. He’s very much in the Heisman conversation and it has more to do with his every-down production rather than the two touchdown returns that helped with his national notoriety. His 94.8 pass rush grade leads everyone in the country and he’s been stout against the run at 85.3. Complementing Allen are Tim Williams (87.9 pass rush) and Ryan Anderson (84.0 pass rush) off the edge while Reuben Foster has the top grade among the nation’s linebackers at 92.5. On the other side of the ball, true freshman Jalen Hurts has been inconsistent while throwing, but his 88.7 rush grade has transformed the Alabama offense as he’s been a major part of the designed run game with 437 yards and seven touchdowns. Alabama’s offensive line has been strong as well, while the skill positions are plenty deep with WR Calvin Ridley (77.1 overall) and TE O.J. Howard (76.9 overall) leading the way.

The Crimson Tide may have their biggest challenges ahead of them with a rejuvenated LSU and perhaps the hottest team in the country in Auburn, but to this point, Alabama is the clear top team in the FBS.

  1. Michigan

Defense is the story at Michigan as well, where a deep defensive line and a versatile back seven make it difficult for opposing teams to move the ball. Linebacker Jabrill Peppers gets the most hype, and he’s certainly been an important piece in the run game at 83.7 and in coverage at 78.5 while also dabbling as a runner and special teams star, but the defensive line and secondary depth is the story of the defense. Whether it’s interior defensive linemen Maurice Hurst (86.2 overall) and Ryan Glasgow (84.9 overall) or edge defenders Chris Wormley (83.0 overall), Taco Charlton (80.6 overall) and Rashan Gary (80.4 overall), Michigan is always rolling through productive players on the defensive line. On the back end, CB Jourdan Lewis was our top-graded returning cornerback in coverage and he’s been in wide receivers’ back hips once again this season while CB Channing Stribling has been right there with him with his 87.8 coverage grade.

The biggest question for Michigan is on offense, where QB Wilton Speight’s development may be the difference in a College Football Playoff berth. He’s been rather average this season, though he’s improved in recent weeks and that’s a good sign for the Michigan offense which boasts playmakers in WR Amara Darboh (81.1 overall) and TE Jake Butt (81.1 receiving). Ultimately, it’s still a power run attack that defines Michigan and their running back committee combined with Peppers’ Wildcat and true freshman Eddie McDoom working the end around/jet sweep game have kept opposing defenses off balance. It’s just on Speight to protect the football as the defense and running game is enough to lead Michigan to the playoff.

The rest of the slate should send Michigan to Columbus still undefeated for a showdown with the Buckeyes where they have to cap the season with a win, followed by another victory in the Big Ten Championship. The Wolverines are in full control of their own destiny.

  1. Clemson

It hasn’t always been pretty for Clemson but they’ve shown the resolve of champions in turning back Louisville and Florida State while surviving near disaster against NC State. Their backs have been against the wall throughout the season but they’ve yet to flinch and a battle-tested roster should bode well for the playoff run. QB Deshaun Watson came into the season as a Heisman favorite, but he hasn’t lived up to his lofty expectations with a 77.8 passing grade that has been marred by inaccuracy and uncharacteristic poor decision-making. Still, here they sit undefeated with a Heisman-level quarterback that has yet to play his best and a plethora of versatile playmakers that can make them the most dangerous offense in America.

Defensively, Clemson has re-built a unit that continues to send players to the NFL as CB Cordrea Tankersley is one of the nation’s best, DT Dexter Lawrence is the second-best true freshman in the country and senior safety Jadar Johnson (85.2 in coverage) makes game-changing interceptions in the biggest games. Throw in 300-pound Christian Wilkins moving out to play more of an edge role and providing 86.3 run defense while DT Carlos Watkins gives a third 300-pounder playing well in the middle and Clemson’s defense has gone from potential question mark to strength very quickly.

While Clemson has been playing with fire, they’re still sitting on oodles of offensive potential and they should head into the ACC Championship unscathed with a chance to return to the College Football Playoff.

  1. Washington

The Huskies have gone through a handful of tests this season – manhandling Stanford in primetime, doing the same to Oregon the following week – but those tests lost their luster as we learned more about Stanford and Oregon. However, a road win against Utah was a huge step toward proving their worth and Washington continues to prove that it has the offensive firepower and stout defense to compete for a championship.

The offense is led by QB Jake Browning who spreads the ball around accurately in the Washington system and he’s aided by John Ross’ big-play speed and Dante Pettis’ playmaking on the outside (80.5 overall grade). True sophomore running back Myles Gaskin has built on a great freshman season to rank among the nation’s best at 76.6 overall.

But much like the other teams in the top four, the defense sets the tone for Washington and they boast three productive 300-plus pounders of their own in Greg Gaines (86.7 overall), Vita Vea (84.3 overall) and Elijah Qualls (83.8 overall). All three rank among the top six interior defensive linemen in the Pac-12 and they’re complemented nicely by edge defender Joe Mathis who ranks sixth in the nation on the edge at 87.9. The secondary is patrolled by CB Sidney Jones (84.2 overall) and safety Budda Baker (81.7 overall), giving the Huskies legitimate top-end talent at all levels of the defense.

The Pac-12 can be more of a grind than many will admit and a November 12th matchup with a hot USC team appears to be the most difficult remaining game for the Huskies, but the Apple Cup against Washington State will be challenging. The eventual Pac-12 Championship could be a rematch with either USC or Utah or perhaps a battle with up-and-coming Colorado. Washington leaped their first major hurdle with the win at Utah, and they have the roster depth to run through the rest of their difficult schedule.

| Senior Analyst

Steve is a senior analyst at Pro Football Focus. His work has been featured on ESPN Insider, NBC Sports, and 120 Sports.

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