Clemson among top four playoff contenders
Week 9 was a quiet one for playoff implications. A number of prominent programs sat it out, and there was a scarcity of big matchups. Though, that’s not to say it lacked drama. Notre Dame outlasted Temple, and Stanford did the same against Washington State. Oklahoma State emerged triumphant from a shootout in Lubbock, North Carolina overcame Pitt and Duke lost to a ludicrous play from Miami.
This is the fifth in our regular series examining the College Football Playoff picture. We’ll merge likely scenarios with PFF grades and data 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, that Notre Dame (even with their loss to Clemson) can force their way back in, or that a team from outside the Power-5, such as Memphis or Houston, makes it in. But most likely the four teams will be drawn from the Power-5 conferences, one team per conference with one conference missing out.
This week it’s the Big 12 who miss out. Their strongest candidate had been Baylor, based largely on the way the team has graded out, rather than its resume which isn’t impressive to this point. However, a season-ending injury to quarterback Seth Russell, who had been performing very well, means that Baylor drop out, at least until we’ve seen that the Bears’ offense continues to function at a high level.
Here are our top four playoff contenders coming out of Week 9:
Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans have their standout performers at key positions, which gives them a chance against anyone. To make the playoff they need to win on the road against Ohio State, which is no small task. It’s definitely a tough call here between the Spartans and the Buckeyes, but right now MSU has the advantage in our PFF grades. Quarterback Connor Cook has one of the top passing grades in college football, and he has been rounding into form this month, with the highest passing grade in the nation for October. His favorite target, Aaron Burbridge, ranks third among WRs. DE Shilique Calhoun (+23.4 grade) and DT Malik McDowell (+15.5) anchor the Spartans’ physical front, and have amassed a very impressive 68 total pressures between them.
The Spartans’ week off came at a good time, giving LT Jack Conklin and the rest of their line a chance to get over the injuries they have been carrying.
Leonard Fournette leads all running backs with a +30.2 overall grade, averaging an outstanding 4.4 yards after contact and forcing 54 missed tackles on runs. The Tigers will need Fournette to carry that form into Tuscaloosa next week, for what promises to be a pivotal game in their season. Beat the Crimson Tide and LSU’s path to the College Football Playoff looks clear.
While the Tigers’ offense has hogged the headlines, the defense has the usual array of talent. DT Davon Godchaux (+13.3) has 24 pressures and 13 defensive stops to his credit. DE Lewis Neal recorded four sacks and 15 total pressures against Florida. LB Kendell Beckwith has a very impressive +10.5 grade for his two most recent games, and true freshman corner Kevin Toliver II (+7.3) has yet to give up a touchdown.
Stanford survived a near-miss in Pullman, as Washington State had the chance to win it with a field goal at the last minute but the kick sailed wide. The Stanford passing attack, which had been performing well recently, was nonexistent this week, as QB Kevin Hogan completed 10 passes for just 86 yards and an interception. Instead they had to rely on the ground attack that has served them so well this season.
Running back Christian McCaffrey (+20.5) has garnered Heisman talk, but was held scoreless by the Cougars, and was fortunate to avoid a costly turnover in the third quarter. Instead, it was Hogan who did the most damage on the ground. They were rushing behind an offensive line in which all five starters have graded positively as run blockers this season. In fact, ahead of the Washington State clash, three Stanford players had double-digit run-blocking grades: LG Joshua Garnett (+22.6 run blocking), C Graham Shuler (+10.7 run blocking) and FB Daniel Marx (+13.9 run blocking).
Even though the Cardinal were nearly knocked out on Saturday night, they maintain their spot here as the best-positioned Pac-12 team, as well as one that has performed very well in our grades previously (even if they might take a bit of a hit this week).
With quarterback questions causing Baylor to slip for now, a spot has opened up for Clemson and the ACC. (It was a tough call here between Clemson and TCU, but the Tigers’ superior balance on both sides of the ball made them our pick here.) Clemson suffered from a high rate of attrition on defense after last season, but new playmakers have stepped up, none more so than DE Shaq Lawson (+21.0). Lawson led the team prior to the North Carolina State game with six sacks and 21 total pressures.
However, while defense has been Clemson’s forte this season, against NC State it was the other side of the ball that carried the day, as the Tigers outscored the Wolfpack 56-41. QB Deshaun Watson and RB Wayne Gallman have been Clemson’s best players on offense, posting +9.0 and +9.7 grades prior to this game, and it was they who did most of the work in Raleigh. Watson threw for 383 yards and five touchdowns, and added another on the ground against NC State, while Gallman rushed for 172 yards and one touchdown.