Our College Football Playoff picks following Week 11
The field of realistic playoff contenders continues to shrink by the week. Both Stanford and Baylor fell to defeats that reduce their playoff chances to long shots, and key matchups like Ohio State-Michigan State, Oklahoma-TCU and Oklahoma State-Baylor all loom large for next week.
This is the seventh in our regular series examining the College Football Playoff picture. We’ll merge likely scenarios with performance factors to identify the four contenders with the strongest claims at this point.
This week it’s the Pac-12 that misses out, after both Stanford and Utah suffered their second defeats of the season. The conference’s tenuous playoff hopes now rest entirely on other conferences coming unstuck over the next three weeks. It’s a pity, as the relative parity in the Pac-12 has produced some of the best matchups of the season, but the inability of any team to run the table is likely to cost them dearly.
Notre Dame can also count themselves unlucky, as Stanford’s loss coupled with a surprise defeat for Temple weakens their hold on a playoff berth. They likely remain in the committee’s top four for now, but will struggle to stay there if undefeated champions emerge from the Big 12 and Big Ten — which certainly isn’t a given, but remains a possibility.
Clemson found itself in a tight game this week, having to grind out a 37-27 win on the road against Syracuse. The Tigers never trailed, but for the second consecutive week they struggled to contain their opponents on the ground. Last week it was FSU star running back Dalvin Cook getting loose (194 yards, including 131 after contact and seven broken tackes), and this week they allowed Syracuse to rumble for 242 rushing yards at 7.1 yards per attempt. While they had 10 defensive linemen who entered this week with good run-defense grades, only DT Christian Wilkins (+3.7) managed that against Florida State.
Fortunately for Clemson, things are definitely clicking for QB Deshaun Watson. Watson compiled a +12.7 overall grade over the previous two weeks, the best in the nation. While he is dangerous as a runner, the majority of that grade was earned through the air, as he ranked sixth across those two weeks with an 80.9 accuracy percentage. Clemson appears to be on a collision course with an increasingly impressive North Carolina team in the ACC title game, so they will get their chance to show they belong in the playoff.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama was able to roll over Mississippi State, with running back Derrick Henry enjoying another 200-yard game on the ground, his third in the past four games. Henry’s +15.3 rushing grade for the season is 12th-best in the nation — which is good but not great. However, from Week 7 on, his +11.8 rushing grade (in three games) ranks third in the nation, so it appears his star is on the rise at the right time for Alabama. This looks to be the story across the board for the Crimson Tide, as players are finding their best form at the business end of the season.
With Charleston Southern up next, Alabama will likely look to rest a few stars ahead of the Iron Bowl matchup with Auburn and their date in the SEC Championship game against Florida. Only an unexpected defeat in one of those games can keep the Crimson Tide from a return to the playoff.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
Oklahoma State’s stay in the playoff picture was almost a short-lived one, as they were pushed to the brink by Iowa State in Ames in what some had labeled a trap game for the Cowboys. They were down 24-7 midway through the second quarter, and 31-21 down entering the fourth.
Their numbers weren’t gaudy, but the quarterback combination of Mason Rudolph through the air and J.W. Walsh on the ground was enough to see the Cowboys through. Rudolph entered the game with a +31.7 overall grade (top 5 in the nation), and Walsh, who is operating as a goal-line QB, entered with an +8.3 overall grade.
While hosting both Baylor and Oklahoma over the next two weeks is definitely to the Cowboys’ advantage, it’s difficult to imagine them winning both if they repeat this performance, and they need to win both if they are to force their way into the playoff.
Ohio State Buckeyes
The defending champions remain undefeated and look increasingly like a team poised to return to the playoff, earning a convincing 28-3 win Saturday over Illinois. While the Buckeyes have yet to face a dominant team, the underwhelming displays that characterized the first half of their season are gone. In their last four games Buckeyes have comfortably beaten Penn State, Rutgers and Illinois, while also defeating a feisty Minnesota team with starting QB, J.T. Barrett serving a one-game suspension.
Barrett earned very good grades of +3.8 and +4.8 against Penn State and Rutgers, respectively, and combines with RB Ezekiel Elliott (+30.9), and WR Michael Thomas (+12.7) to give the Buckeyes an edge on offense. Defensively the Buckeyes have been strong all season with DE Joey Bosa (+54.1) standing out again as the nation’s top-graded defender, an stars all over thee field on that side of the ball.
Ohio State is still the front-runner in the Big Ten, but with games against Michigan State and Michigan over the next two weeks, the Buckeyes will finally get the chance to show the nation precisely how good they are this season.