Ranking Alabama’s 5 biggest playoff threats
Can anyone beat the Crimson Tide? We've put in order which teams have the biggest chance.
Ranking Alabama’s 5 biggest playoff threats
There’s a lot of uncertainty about who will fill out the College Football Playoff rankings later tonight, but one thing we know for sure is that Alabama will remain at No. 1. While the teams ranked two through four all lost, the defending national champions crushed Mississippi State to remain unbeaten.
With the level of dominance they have shown the question has now become, “can anyone beat Alabama?” While it’s fair to say they are currently strong favorites to retain their crown, there are at least five teams in college football who have the potential to take down the Tide in the College Football Playoff — here’s how they stack up:
Michigan has their problems on offense, especially with the news that quarterback Will Speight will miss the rest of the season, but they represent the biggest threat to Alabama because of what their defense can do. Realistically, they are the only defense in the nation that can claim to be as good as Alabama’s, and you can make a strong case that they’re better than the No. 1-ranked ranked team on the defensive line.
Michigan has seven players in their front seven that have recorded at least 20 total pressures this season, something which is absolutely key to defeating Alabama when you consider that true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts’ completion percentage drops from 75.7 to 25.4 when under pressure. Meanwhile, in the defensive backfield they have cornerback Jourdan Lewis, who is allowing just 0.31 yards per coverage snap, the seventh-best mark in the nation, and big play threat Jabrill Peppers waiting to pounce on any mistakes Hurts can be forced into.
Louisville is the team that nobody will want to play in the College Football Playoff, simply because they have the likely Heisman Trophy winner and college football’s most versatile offensive weapon in quarterback Lamar Jackson. Louisiville’s offensive line has struggled all year, and that’s not a good thing to have if you’re going up against Alabama, but it hasn’t stopped Jackson from dominating.
He has forced 44 missed tackles on 161 runs so far this year, with 623 of his 1,479 yards coming after contact. What’s terrifying for opposing defenses is that he can hurt you on designed runs, where he averages 7.2 and 9.3 yards per carry on runs off left and right end respectively, but also on quarterback scrambles. 13 of his 44 missed tackles forced have come on scrambles, and he averages a missed tackle forced once every 2.7 times he takes off on a passing play. Alabama is most definitely a better all-round team than Louisville, but when you have a player as dynamic as Jackson at quarterback, all bets are off.
- Ohio State
If Michigan is a threat because of their defense, and Louisville is a threat because of a superstar playmaker on offense, Ohio State is a threat because of a little bit of both. Defensively, they are strong up front, if perhaps not quite as impressive as Michigan or Alabama. Still, they have four players who have registered at least 20 pressures, including Nick Bosa, who has picked up where his brother left off, registering four sacks, four hits and 21 hurries on 146 pass-rushing snaps.
On offense the threat is two-fold, with quarterback J.T. Barrett capable of causing problems on the ground, having forced 20 missed tackles on 130 carries, including nine on 26 quarterback scrambles. However it is the versatility of Curtis Samuel that could give Alabama the biggest cause for concern. As a runner Samuel has forced 16 missed tackles on 81 carries, adding another nine on 56 receptions. So far this year, he has averaged 3.32 yards per route run, the best mark amongst running backs, and has shown the ability to be a huge factor whether lined up in the backfield, or out of the slot.
If there’s one area where the Alabama defense doesn’t fill you with as much confidence as the rest, it’s their ability to defend the deep ball. Left cornerback Marlon Humphrey is an NFL-caliber cornerback, and has given up just 26 receptions so far this year while recording four pass breakups and two interceptions. The problem though is that he is giving up 18.0 yards per reception. This isn’t an isolated problem either, after he allowed an average of 17.4 yards per catch a year ago. While Humphrey can break on the ball and make plays, he has allowed a reception of 30 yards or more in six of Alabama’s 10 games this year.
Enter Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson. Watson is starting to heat up like he did at the end of last season, and ranks 25th in the nation with an adjusted completion percentage of 47.7 percent on throws travelling 20 yards or further downfield. Make no mistake about it, Deshaun Watson would be able to find big plays against this Alabama secondary.
The Jake Browning-to-John Ross connection is good enough to make any college defense at least a little bit nervous, and as good as Alabama is defensively, they can definitely be caused some serious problems. Browning has completed 27 of the 59 passes travelling 20 yards or further downfield this year, with three drops, good for an adjusted completion percentage of 50.1 percent, ranking 12th in the nation.
Ross is a track athlete with football skills, which is a terrifying prospect for defensive backs and coaches alike. His 475 yards on receptions 20 yards or further downfield are the eighth-most among wide receivers this year, and of the 13 catchable passes thrown his way downfield, seven have resulted in touchdowns.
All that being said, this Alabama team is as talented a team as we’ve seen since we began grading every FBS game in college football three years ago. These five teams have strengths and x-factors that can help them pull off the upset, but Alabama is going to be the favorite in every game from here on out.
Gordon McGuinness | Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst
Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.