Michigan State Spartans lead new playoff picks

Kevin Connaghan looks at PFF grades and likely playoff positioning to make four picks for the College Football Playoff.

| 1 year ago
(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Michigan State Spartans lead new playoff picks


With an impressive slate of games, Week 7 was always going to cause a little restructuring at the top. There were statement wins for Alabama, LSU, Michigan State and Stanford. Outside the front-runners Iowa turned it up a notch to seize control of the Big Ten West, and Memphis claimed a great victory over Ole Miss that will stand them in good stead if they keep winning. As the dust settles we take a look at how things stand.

This is the third in our regular series examining the College Football Playoff picture. We’ll merge likely scenarios with PFF performance factors to identify the four contenders with the strongest claims at this point.

It is possible that one conference sends more than one representative to the postseason, or that a team from outside the Power 5, such as Memphis or Notre Dame (even with the loss to Clemson) can force their way in. But more likely the four teams will be drawn from the Power-5, one team per conference with one conference missing out.

For now, and based on perceived overall conference strength, the ACC remains that unfortunate conference, but that can change as events play out.

Michigan State Spartans

There is change at the top of the Big Ten, as Michigan State’s hard-fought win in Ann Arbor allows them to move ahead of Ohio State in the pecking order. There was a huge element of luck in the way that victory came about, and that may count against them down the line when the selection committee can look at each team’s entire body of work. But for now it’s enough that they beat a rising Michigan team in Ann Arbor.

The defensive line did its job, with Shilique Calhoun (+5.7) and Malik McDowell (+4.8) continuing to standout. Calhoun accounted for two sacks and eight total pressures on his own. When quarterback Connor Cook (+3.2) had time in the pocket he was able to find holes in Michigan’s secondary, and if not for four drops, Michigan State may not have needed to rely on a freakish play to emerge victorious.

The race for the Big Ten is far from over, but it’s advantage Michigan State for now. Ohio State appears to be finding form however — which is an ominous sign for the Spartans who have to travel to Columbus next month.

LSU Tigers

A little trickery and a lot of running back Leonard Fournette proved to be enough to see LSU past an impressive Florida team, and into the driver’s seat in the SEC. Fournette entered the game tied for first in the nation with a +13.7 run grade and averaging 4.6 yards after contact. The Gators defense presented his sternest challenge of the season, but Fournette rose to the occasion with 195 total yards and two touchdowns. So long as he keeps doing that, LSU will be tough to beat.

It could very easily be Alabama in this spot, and perhaps should be given the way they are rolling, but that home loss to Ole Miss looks worse by the week. The Crimson Tide will have the chance to press their claim when they host LSU in three weeks, but for now they play second fiddle to the Bayou Bengals and their Heisman candidate running back.

Utah Utes

Utah continues to defy expectations and remain undefeated. That didn’t look like a foregone conclusion when they entered the fourth quarter 18-14 down, struggling to run the ball against Arizona State. Star running back Devontae Booker finished the game with a respectable tally of 118 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries, but 103 of those yards and both touchdowns came in the fourth quarter — prior to that the Sun Devils had bossed the line of scrimmage.

Fortunately for Utah, their defense was able to hold Arizona State to 257 total yards and 18 points, 12 of which had little to do with the Utes defense. Prior to the game Utah’s defensive line had registered a combined nine sacks and 93 total pressures and they carried that form into this contest.

With Stanford looking impressive in the Pac-12 North, the Utes cannot afford to stumble, but so long as they keep winning they control their own destiny.

Baylor Bears

While some will discount their performance as it came against a West Virginia team that has lost three straight games, the Baylor offense once again looked terrific. Unstoppable even, and in terms of the Big 12 landscape where there aren’t any defenses playing at an elite level that may well be true.

Wide receiver Corey Coleman starred once again, with 10 receptions for 199 yards and three touchdowns. Coleman entered the game averaging an outrageous 5.8 yards per route run, easily the best mark in the nation. With a back-loaded schedule, scepticism about the Bears will continue until the second-half of November, when they finally get the chance to prove themselves against the conference’s best. For now we can only judge them on the manner of their performances, which have been impressive this season.

| Analyst

Kevin has been an analyst at Pro Football Focus since 2014, with a particular focus on college football.

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