Ranking the top contenders for the No. 4 playoff spot
We're looking past matchups and records to break down which remaining contender is the best football team.
Ranking the top contenders for the No. 4 playoff spot
Conference championship week is finally here, and very little has been decided when it comes to the national playoff combatants. We know Alabama is in — they’re the only undefeated team in the Power-5 (apologies to Western Michigan fans), and a surprise loss to Florida in the SEC championship game is unlikely to move them out of the top seed. Clemson plays Virginia Tech in the ACC championship game, and their path is simple: win and they’re in, lose and they’re out. The same goes for Washington, as a win over Colorado in the PAC-12 championship will make them one of at most four contenders with only one loss.
Beyond those three, the scenarios become very muddled, and regardless of what happens in any of the top games, the committee is going to have a brutally difficult decision to make. Factors going into that decision are likely to include strength of schedule, head-to-head wins and the importance (or lack-there-of) of winning a conference championship, but those methods require too much transitive analysis.
Luckily, PFF is in it for the people and we’re here to help. Because our team has graded every FBS game this year, we are in the unique position to offer insight deeper than just records and matchups. Here is a look at how we rank the remaining seven contenders, based largely on our own signature statistics that we have tabulated throughout the season:
- Ohio State Buckeyes
While Buckeye fans are certainly exuberant after Saturday’s double-overtime victory, they’ll have an agonizing week. Due to their loss to Penn State earlier in the season, it is the Nittany Lions who are headed to Indianapolis on Saturday. Because of this, Ohio State is banking on their record superseding their lack of a conference championship.
If it were up to PFF, there would be no wait – Ohio State has earned the right to play in the national playoff. All three phases of the defense grade in the top five nationally, led by a pass rush that averaged a pressure on 51.1 percent of pass plays in the last three games.
Yes, the offense can at times be held back by J.T. Barrett’s inaccurate passing and the offensive line’s spotty blocking, but the three-headed monster of Barrett and RBs Mike Weber and Curtis Samuel consistently succeeds independent of the blocking up front. The trio is collectively averaging 6.1 yards per rush and has forced 81 missed tackles on the ground. Samuel doubles as Ohio State’s best receiving threat (64 catches, seven touchdowns and nine missed-tackles forced), and belongs in New York City in a couple of weeks with this year’s Heisman finalists.
- Michigan Wolverines
Unless the committee puts significant weight on head-to-head wins versus Wisconsin, Penn State and Colorado, Michigan has almost no real shot at making the playoff. Their defense’s dominate play on the field over the course of the entire season, however, suggests otherwise, as they’ve been the only school to consistently challenge Alabama in almost any statistical category. It grades out second in the country to Alabama in terms of run defense and pass rush, and “slips” to eighth in coverage grades. CBs Channing Stribling and Jourdan Lewis have combined to give up just 28 catches on 93 targets this season and have defended a total of 24 passes between them. Few, if any pass-rushers have finished the season on the type of hot streak seen by DE Taco Charlton, as he has amassed four sacks, eight hits and 16 hurries in his last five games.
- Wisconsin Badgers
The Badgers are currently a 2.5-point favorite to win Saturday night’s Big Ten championship game, which coupled with a loss by Clemson or Washington will likely put them in a playoff, while all three teams holding serve puts the committee in a bit of a pickle in terms of deciding whether to take Wisconsin or Ohio State. No team in contention for the final spot has been more dominant in November, as the Badgers have swept all four games by an average score of 37 to 12, including a 21-7 road victory over a Northwestern squad that had taken the Buckeyes to the limit in Columbus the week prior. Star pass-rusher Vince Biegel is finally healthy, and has racked up three sacks and nine total pressures in Wisconsin’s final two games. Not to be outdone, his edge counterpart T.J. Watt also has three sacks and nine total pressures in his last two and leads the Badgers with 47 total pressures. Wisconsin’s defense also likely boasts the best safety duo in the country, as D’Cota Dixon and Leo Musso have given up just 25 catches on 51 primary targets and have combined for eight interceptions on the season. Wisconsin’s offense has also been vastly improved down the stretch, led by one of the best offensive tackles in college football this season, Ryan Ramczyk, as well as RB Corey Clement. Clement has racked up 440 yards and seven touchdowns in the last four games and has forced 15 missed tackles in that span.
- Colorado Buffaloes
The Buffaloes played the most dominant quarter of football against the Wolverines this season, but ultimately lost the matchup when the offense couldn’t keep pace after QB Sefo Liufau was forced to leave the game due to injury. Colorado’s only other loss this year came at the hands of USC in week six, a week prior to Liufau’s return as a full-time starter. With him at the helm the Buffaloes’ offense has shown a propensity for explosive plays, as his 132.4 passer rating on throws at least 20 yards downfield is the highest in the country among QBs with at least 30 attempts. The secondary is the highest-graded in the country, a remarkable feat considering the volume of outstanding passing teams Colorado has faced out west. S Tedric Thompson leads all safeties with a 92.8 coverage grade, as he has seven interceptions, seven pass breakups and a QB rating against of just 19.1. Matched up in man-to-man coverage in the slot for much of Colorado’s last two games he was foolishly targeted 22 times; he gave up just three receptions for 15 yards while intercepting three and breaking up four. Crazy enough, he may only be the third-best player in Colorado’s secondary, as CBs Chidobe Awuzie and Ahkello Witherspoon have yielded just 53 receptions on 129 targets and have successfully defended 20 passes.
- Oklahoma Sooners
While the Sooners luck out with Bedlam being a de facto title game this year, their argument is a bit more difficult to conceive considering their home blowout loss to the Buckeyes back in September. This being said, Oklahoma may have the best offense in the country, as it boasts multiple players with legitimate Heisman arguments. Baker Mayfield is second only to Western Michigan’s Zach Terrell in PFF QB rating. WR DeDe Westbrook ranks third in the country in yards (1348), yards after the catch (684) and missed tackles forced (23), while RB Joe Mixon 87.1 overall grade is third-best in the country at his position.
As good as the offense has been, the defense is significantly flawed. The Sooners are averaging 28.6 points against per game, and four times have given up at least 40 points in a game (three of those four teams have combined for 18 losses this year). OLB Ogbonnia Okoronkwo has tallied an impressive eight sacks and 10 hits this season, but no other sooner has more than two sacks or four hits. The Oklahoma defense has collectively missed 103 tackles this season, with 51 of them coming from the secondary.
- Penn State Nittany Lions
September was a struggle for the Nittany Lions, as they lost on the road at Pitt, beat Temple by just a touchdown and were blown out by 39 points at Michigan. They have since run the table, highlighted of course by their victory over Ohio State and a final five game stretch that saw them win by an average of 46 to 16. They are of course headlined by RB Saquon Barkley and his 53 forced missed tackles, but QB Trace McSorley deserves a large share of credit as well. He has also been impressive on the ground, as he has added 525 yards and six scores while forcing 20 missed tackles. He has a 66.7 adjusted completion percentage (which accounts for 22 drops and 20 intentional throw-aways), and has deep pass accuracy percentage of 45.7 percent, which ranks tops in the big ten and 11th nationally. While the defense has amassed an impressive 258 QB pressures (third nationally behind Michigan and Alabama), tackling has been a consistent problem. On the year the defense has missed 123 tackles, including a combined 36 against Ohio State and Michigan.
- Oklahoma State Cowboys
The Cowboys have accomplished little to suggest they’re worthy of being in the playoff, even if the Central Michigan debacle is (rightfully) considered a win by the committee. Yes, they beat a Pitt team that holds victories over Clemson and Penn State this year, but Oklahoma State followed that win up with a double-digit loss to a Baylor team whose only other Big 12 wins have come against Iowa State and Kansas. There’s no denying how good Mason Rudolph has been, as he is third in the country in yards through the air and his PFF QB rating ranks him seventh. Similar to their in-state rival, however, the Cowboys defense has been largely suspect. DT Vincent Taylor has been an excellent run defender this year and leads Oklahoma State with 12-combined sacks and hits, but no other Cowboy has more than six. The defense has collectively missed 117 tackles and is averaging more than 11 per conference game.
Josh Liskiewitz | Analyst
Josh joined PFF as an analyst in 2015. During the season, his primary focus is college football (mainly the Big Ten). He is also heavily involved in PFF's NFL draft coverage. Prior to joining the team, he worked for six years with GM Jr. Scouting, an independent draft scouting service.