Top four college football teams in PFF grades
There was no great intrigue ahead of the announcement of the College Football Playoff committee’s four team selections. Based on the results on the field this season, the committee did well to select Alabama, Clemson, Michigan State and Oklahoma.
But what if the playoff field were truly made up of the four best teams in the country, regardless of record?
We can answer that question. At Pro Football Focus we grade every player on every play, so we can use those grades to assess which teams have the highest-performing players across the board.
Being the “best” doesn’t automatically mean being the most deserving — the better team doesn’t always win. But if we want to see the most talented teams facing off in the playoff, then the final four might look a little different.
Here are the top four teams in PFF grades, two of which made the playoff. Plus, we’ll look at the two playoff teams that miss our top four, and explain where they fall a little short.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Offensively, the Tide are built around their Heisman candidate running back Derrick Henry. Henry rushed for 1,986 yards and 23 touchdowns, breaking Herschel Walker’s SEC rushing yards record in the process, a tremendous accomplishment. He started the season in solid but unspectacular fashion, and it wasn’t until the mid-October game against Texas A&M that his season exploded. In the seven games since he’s rushed for 200-plus yards four times an only once failed to exceed 140, and that one time was because he was being rested for the tougher games to come. If you limit it to Power-5 competition, Henry ranks fourth in yards after contact per attempt, third in rushing grade and tied for first with Leonard Fournette with 61 broken tackles as a runner.
Henry is running behind an improving offensive line, with three starters earning positive run blocking grades for the season. QB Jake Coker (+5.0 overall) is solid, and freshman WR Calvin Ridley (+6.2) is a burgeoning star, but this offense is built on the ground game.
Of course, the true strength of the Crimson Tide lies on the defensive side. Their top 20 defensive players in terms of snaps, have all earned grades of +2.7 or greater. That is a phenomenal achievement and speaks to the depth Alabama has on that side of the ball.
It’s not just about depth, either; there are plenty of stars. Defensive linemen Jarran Reed (+43.3), Jonathan Allen (+26.6) and A’Shawn Robinson (+25.8), along with linebackers Reggie Ragland (+29.2) and Reuben Foster (+19.9) form the heart of the most imposing defensive front in the country. All rank among the best at their respective positions. Outside linebackers Ryan Anderson (+30.3) and Tim Williams (+22.4) are on the field less often, but have a huge impact as pass-rushers when they are.
2. Oklahoma Sooners
Oklahoma effectively sealed its playoff berth by successfully navigating the back-loaded Big 12 schedule. While that tough finish lost a little gloss thanks to the injuries to opposing quarterbacks, the manner of the Sooners’ performances left little doubt that they belong on this list.
RBs Samaje Perine (+16.0) and Joe Mixon (+15.1) have been strong in the second half of the season, but the Sooners offense is driven by the outstanding play of Baker Mayfield (+52.9), the No. 1 QB in PFF grades, and his connection with Sterling Shepard (+30.8), PFF’s No. 1 receiver.
Mayfield has been exceptional as a passer, but his +7.7 rushing grade shows the mobility that makes him so dangerous as a dual-threat QB. He can scramble for positive yardage against an unwary defense, but he is also capable of using his feet to evade pass rushers before delivering the ball downfield. As for Shepard, our highest-graded WR, he lines up in the slot on 73% of his plays and is extremely productive when he does so. His average of 3.12 yards per route run from the slot is the best mark among Power-5 WRs.
As talented as the Sooners are on offense, they are equally strong on the other side of the ball and can get after the quarterback. Defensive linemen Charles Walker (+34.0) and Charles Tapper (+20.3) have combined for 14 sacks and 51 total pressures this season. Eric Striker, an undersized rush linebacker in the Sooners’ 3-4 defense, has added a further eight sacks and 46 total pressures, with 11 of those pressures coming in the last two games when they mattered most.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes
This is where picking the four best teams diverges from picking the four most deserving. Ohio State blew its chance when it lost at home to a Michigan State team handing a first start to its backup quarterback. They responded with a win over Michigan that was one of the most complete performances produced by any team in 2015.
Offensively, it’s tough to make a case for the Buckeyes being one of the four best teams in the nation, as they have tended to grind out wins rather than blow teams away. WR Michael Thomas (+14.3) has impressed, and the offense looked better once QB J.T. Barrett (+4.5) became the starter, but the two standout performers have been RB Ezekiel Elliott (+33.7) and RG Pat Elflein (+24.3).
In contrast to the offense, the Buckeyes’ defense has starred all season long, and is the major reason they make this list. DE Joey Bosa (+66.6) is our top ranked edge rusher, and it’s not close. He might be the best player in the country. He’s not the only standout performer on the defensive line, either, with DT Adolphus Washington (+47.1), DT Tommy Schutt (+13.6), DE Tyquan Lewis (+12.2) and DE Sam Hubbard (+9.6) all providing ample support for Bosa. That quintet has combined for 28 sacks, 170 total pressures, and 131 defensive stops.
Linebackers Joshua Perry (+22.8), Raekwon McMillan (+18.2) and Darron Lee (+15.1) form arguably the best unit in the country, with all three grading positively in both run defense and coverage. Behind them S Vonn Bell (+13.4) and corners Gareon Conley (+8.4) and Eli Apple (+6.8) make things difficult for receivers, as all of them are allowing less than 50 percent of passes into their coverage to be completed.
4. Stanford Cardinal
The Cardinal ruined their playoff hopes by laying an egg in the season opener on the road at Northwestern, and by failing to maintain control of the game against a dangerous Oregon team. However, the Cardinal proved themselves to be the class of a Pac-12 conference full of talented but flawed teams.
Sophomore RB Christian McCaffrey was the star for Stanford, as his +43.4 overall grade was the best in the nation among backs. McCaffrey did it all for Stanford — rushing, receiving, returning and even passing — breaking the NCAA all-purpose yardage record set by the great Barry Sanders. Veteran QB Kevin Hogan flourished alongside McCaffrey, earning a +25.0 overall grade and enjoying the best season of his college career.
It helped that McCaffrey was rushing behind an outstanding offensive line, as four of the five starters on that line finished the season with overall grades of +16.5 or greater. FB Daniel Marx also did his part for the run game, with a +12.1 run-blocking grade.
The starting defensive line of Solomon Thomas (+26.4), Aziz Shittu (+13.7) and Brennan Scarlett (+13.1) was good, but they had little depth. Behind the line LBs Peter Kalambayi (+8.3), Blake Martinez (+7.3) and CB Ronnie Harris (+8.1) all had solid seasons, but this unit was not of the same vintage as other recent Stanford defenses.
Clemson and Michigan State
So what do we make of the two playoff teams that wouldn’t have made it if the criteria were simply to find the four best teams? Both Clemson and Michigan State have had excellent seasons and deserve their playoff berths through what they have done on the field — how do they stack up in PFF grades?
Each team has star players at key positions who could take them all the way. QB Deshaun Watson (+34.8 grade and the No. 4 QB versus Power-5 competition), RB Wayne Gallman (+18.0), edge rusher Shaq Lawson (+34.2), LB B.J. Goodson (+21.7) and S Jayron Kearse (+18.0) all stood out for Clemson. QB Connor Cook (+29.3, No. 6 QB versus Power 5), LT Jack Conklin (+35.6), WR Aaron Burbridge (+23.1), DE Shilique Calhoun (+36.1) and DT Malik McDowell (+27.6) all stood out for Michigan State.
However, neither team has had the same quantity of elite performers that the four teams listed have enjoyed, and that is the difference if we are selecting the four best teams, rather than the four most deserving.
Each also has its issues. The Spartans rank slightly higher than Clemson, but they’ve had issues this season in pass coverage, but they are also brought down a bit by penalties and special teams play.
Clemson, meanwhile, has had issues with its offensive line. The Tigers grade negatively in pass blocking, but their run blocking is actually much worse, ranking among the bottom 15 units in the country. They haven’t been good enough at the skill positions to off-set it by a large margin, whereas they grade out very well on defense across the board.
Both are very talented teams, but not quite on the same level as Alabama or Oklahoma — or Ohio State or Stanford, for that matter.