Playoff picks: How Clemson, Louisville can both make field

Steve Palazzolo shares his picks for the four best teams in the country right now.

| 7 months ago
(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

(Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Playoff picks: How Clemson, Louisville can both make field

What a difference a week makes, as the last College Football Playoff rankings felt like a no-brainer while this week’s top four can now go any of a number of ways.

However, even with the No. 2, 3, and 4 teams all losing this weekend, it may not have as much of a long-term impact on the playoff picture as it seems on the surface. Sure, each team is now playing with a much smaller margin of error, but the top teams that lost last week – Clemson, Michigan, and Washington – all have a clear road to the playoff if they take care of business down the stretch.

After 11 weeks of action, here are the four best teams in the country right now:

  1. Alabama

Not much changes at the top as it’s another week in which Alabama pulls away from the pack with a dominant outing. We’re now at the point where they are so far ahead, they can lose the Iron Bowl against Auburn in two weeks and still enter the playoffs as the No. 1 seed.

It was another classic performance by the Alabama defense as they pressured Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald on 44 percent of his dropbacks while holding ball carriers to 123 yards on 32 carries (3.8 yards per carry). But this performance was about the offense coming back to life after a 10-point outing against LSU the previous week. They ran for 174 yards on only 28 carries (6.2 yards per carry) while QB Jalen Hurts threw for 347 yards, 252 of which came after the catch. While the rest of the top four teams were losing, Alabama’s playmakers were making a statement that they’re the definitive No. 1 team in the country and the lone undefeated team in the Power-5.

  1. Ohio State

Since losing to Penn State in Week 8, Ohio State survived to defeat Northwestern in Week 9 before dropping the hammer on Nebraska and Maryland with identical 62-3 scores over the last two weeks. Their ability to get back on track in emphatic fashion has them in the No. 2 spot and one of the most unique situations we’ve seen since the playoff started in 2014. Ohio State does not control their own destiny in the Big Ten East, but they may just control their own destiny in the playoff picture. If they win out, and Penn State defeats both Rutgers and Michigan State, they will not play in the Big Ten Championship as they’ll lose the tiebreaker to Penn State. However, with wins over Michigan State and Michigan to cap the season, it will be difficult to keep Ohio State from making the playoff. If there’s one specific area of improvement to point to since the Penn State loss, it’s their ability to protect QB J.T. Barrett.

  1. Clemson

Perhaps no team is as confusing to rank as Clemson, though they still sit in a position of strength as they should be in the playoff if they win their last two games and the ACC Championship. Still, they’ve been dangerously close to losing multiple games this season and they finally fell this week in a 43-42 defeat to Pittsburgh. The defense struggled, but Heisman hopeful QB Deshaun Watson continues to make poor decisions with the ball, this time throwing a goal line interception that turned the game late in the fourth quarter. Still, few offenses possess the firepower Clemson has at the skill positions and Watson remains one of the most talented players in the nation, so they will not drop far in this week’s rankings. Clemson is no longer playing with house money, but they can still play their way into the playoff.

  1. Louisville

The No. 4 spot should bring the most controversy — I’m putting Louisville here for now — but completely understanding that Michigan is lurking and if they win out, they will be heading for the playoff over the Cardinals. However, Louisville’s resume is too difficult to ignore and even when compared to Clemson, there’s a discussion to be had about leapfrogging the Tigers. While Clemson did beat Louisville in the head-to-head, the argument could be made that Clemson’s loss to Pittsburgh is actually worse than Louisville’s loss to Clemson. Long-term, however, Clemson is in the driver’s seat with the head-to-head win and a road that likely includes the ACC Championship — a game Louisville can only see if Wake Forest defeats Clemson next week. The trump card for Louisville is QB Lamar Jackson, who is clearly the top offensive weapon in the nation and one of the few players who can take over a game and make a major impact, even in an off-game. If Louisville wins out against Houston and Kentucky, they will stay in the discussion, but they may need some help along the way to get into the final four.

Missing the cut:

  1. Michigan

Much was made about Michigan playing just their second game outside of the state of Michigan, the first against a team with a conference win, and the trip to Iowa proved difficult. While the defense played their usual strong brand of football, the offense struggled to get much going and that’s been the biggest concern for Michigan all season. QB Wilton Speight started the season with an average grade, but he’d put together three strong weeks in a row and his development is crucial to Michigan’s playoff hopes. However, Speight took a step back with a 57.3 overall grade as he completed just one of his 13 attempts thrown at least 10 yards down the field. As good as Michigan’s defense has been, they need a complementary offense in order to make any noise in the playoff. As for their road, they can punch their ticket to the playoff with wins over Indiana, Ohio State, and a win in the Big Ten Championship, so the loss to Iowa doesn’t sting in the long-term.

  1. Washington

Washington drops out of the top four after a disappointing effort against USC, but there’s still hope to get back into the top four if they win out. They have games remaining with Arizona State and Washington State, followed by the Pac-12 Championship game, and an impressive stretch run will put Washington right in the mix. However, the loss to USC was alarming, as Washington failed to put consistent pressure on USC QB Sam Darnold, perhaps missing the presence of their injured top pass-rusher Joe Mathis. QB Jake Browning had a disappointing game as well, struggling to get the ball downfield and putting the ball in harm’s way far too often. While Washington has a good all-around team, and they’re still very much in the mix, a few deficiencies highlighted their first loss of the season.

| 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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