Biggest weakness on every top-10 college football team
It’s difficult to hide weaknesses as the sample size of the season increases, and usually in big games, even the best teams will have their weakest links exposed. That’s not to say that every team is destined to lose along the way, but there are elements to each team that run the risk of holding them down in any given week. Is the passing game being protected by a strong running game? Is the pass rush being helped by strong coverage on the back end?
While it may be hard to find weaknesses on many of the top teams, if we dig deep, there are always potential issues looming — especially if the rest of the team is unable to overcome in any given week.
Here’s a look at the biggest weaknesses for each of the top teams in the nation:
[Editor’s note: The ranking of the top 10 is based off PFF’s Top 25, which you can read here.]
1. Alabama: Passing under pressure
It’s not an easy task finding a weakness for Alabama, especially on the defensive side of the ball where they’re loaded at every level. It’s also difficult to highlight a weakness on an offense that has rarely been slowed down this season. However, if there is something that might slow the offense it’s true freshman QB Jalen Hurts’ work under pressure. While the entire body of work has been impressive this season, especially for a freshman, Hurts has a massive drop-off when pressured as his completion percentage drops from 75.4 percent to 25.6 percent. Hurts is a dynamic runner, but he’s shown the usual freshmen inconsistency when throwing the ball down field, so it’s something to monitor as the season progresses.
2. Ohio State: Pass game
While QB J.T. Barrett is coming off one of his best games as a passer against Wisconsin, he’s also one week removed from a 9-for-21, 93-yard effort against Indiana. Barrett has been outstanding as a runner and he brings a dynamic threat to the Ohio State offense both in the designed running game and as a scrambler. However, he’s still inconsistent as a passer and despite his impressive passing stats, he’s as much a product of the downfield ability of WR Noah Brown and after-the-catch skills of RB/WR hybrids Curtis Samuel and Dontre Wilson. There’s nothing wrong with being a distributor in that offense, however there are games in which Barrett will need to be relied upon as a passer and his No. 40 passing grade (out of 80 qualifiers) against Power-5 competition may get exposed along the way.
3. Clemson: Turnovers
Clemson is doing their best to through old football adages out the window as they continue to lose the turnover battle while still finding a way to win. Only four teams have turned it over more than Clemson’s 16 as they’ve lost eight fumbles and thrown eight interceptions. The turnovers nearly cost them against Louisville and more recently they were a field goal away from losing to NC State, so while they’ve survived to this point, they’ve been playing with fire all season. The timeliness of the turnovers has made them even worse, whether a goal line fumble, red zone interception from QB Deshaun Watson or the pick-six Watson threw at the beginning of the second half against NC State. Clemson has survived the sloppiness for now, and perhaps they have it all out of their system, but their undefeated goals likely can’t survive the turnovers for much longer.
4. Michigan: Quarterback
There’s little to complain about on the Michigan defense as they rush the passer as well as any team in the country and cover on the back end just as well. Coming into the season, we expected that kind of elite defensive performance, but the questions always surrounded the offense, particularly the quarterback position. Wilton Speight won the heated battle in training camp, but the position still remains the biggest weakness on the team and perhaps a hurdle they’ll have to clear along the way in order to keep their undefeated season intact. Look no further than the Wisconsin game to see Speight struggle against a good team as he threw a number of dangerous passes into coverage. Speight’s 63.9 season grade is concerning, even with a defense as good as Michigan’s.
5. Washington: Pass blocking
Not only is Washington one of the top stories of the season with their surge toward the College Football Playoff, they’re also a well-rounded team with few areas to nitpick. If there’s a place to highlight, it’s pass protection as QB Jake Browning has been pressured on 33.2 percent of his dropbacks, the 39th-highest rate out of the top 136 qualifiers. Even with Browning ranking as one of the nation’s best quarterback when pressured the last two seasons, it’s not a recipe for success and one that Washington will need to shore up against better pass-rushing teams.
6. Louisville: Offensive line
The beauty of having an efficient running quarterback is that the offensive line does not have to dominate in order to succeed offensively. The mobile quarterback allows the offense to outnumber the defense in order to gain yards, so the offensive line doesn’t even have to win in order for players like Heisman front-runner QB Lamar Jackson to succeed. That’s been the case this season where Louisville’s offensive line has struggled in the run game and in pass protection. While Jackson will always be there to protect the line, getting better movement at the point of attack and doing a better job of keeping Jackson clean (completion percentage drops from 61.6 percent in clean pocket to 46.2 percent under pressure) will make life easier for Louisville down the stretch.
7. Texas A&M: Tackling
No team had missed more tackles than Texas A&M’s 90 coming into Week 7 and they have whiffed on 21.3 percent of their attempts, third-highest in the nation. Their 31-miss effort against Tennessee in Week 6 nearly cost them their undefeated season. Safeties Armani Watts and Justin Evans lead all safeties with 15 and 14 missed tackles respectively, and while both players have played well overall, the tackling must be better on the back end. Overall, the Texas A&M defense has had an excellent season behind a strong defensive front, but the tackling woes have led to far too many big plays.
8. Nebraska: Pass game
Despite his experience, QB Tommy Armstrong still experiences far too many ups and downs as a passer. Look no further than last week against Illinois as he finished with a 41.5 grade for the game and now sits at 63.0 for the season. Accuracy has never been Armstrong’s strength and his adjusted completion percentage of 65.1 percent ranks 101st out of the top 136 qualifiers, so while Nebraska has strong enough pieces to win games without a top-notch passing game, a more efficient attack would go a long way for the Huskers.
9. West Virginia: Pass rush
As impressive as the defense has been this season, they’ve done it largely without pressuring the quarterback. Much of this is scheme-based as West Virginia’s 3-3-5 attack sends only three rushers 50.0 percent of the time, but they’ve only pressured the quarterback 22.3 percent of the time this season (NCAA avg is 29.5 percent) and the three-man rush has picked up pressure only 6.5 percent of the time. While the scheme is certainly limiting, and the quick-passing attacks of the Big 12 make it difficult to get to the quarterback, West Virginia could stand to get to the quarterback more efficiently.
10. Baylor: Deep ball
This may come as a surprise as Baylor’s passing game is predicated on screens, curls and go-routes, but the deep ball has been less efficient than it was a year ago at this time. Losing first-round wide receiver Corey Coleman certainly hurts, but through seven weeks in 2015, QB Seth Russell ranked fifth in the nation with an adjusted completion percentage of 51.1 percent and his 751 deep passing yards also ranked fifth. Russell also led the nation with 12 touchdowns on the deep ball. This season he now ranks 66th out of 120 qualifiers with an adjusted completion percentage of 37.8 on deep passes and his 557 yards rank 16th while his four touchdowns are tied for 37th. The deep pass is such a major staple in Baylor’s offense, the drop-off is concerning and one that Baylor needs if they’re going to make a run at staying undefeated.