Florida among top four playoff contenders entering Week 7
Week 6 of the college football season saw the usual share of shocks (Texas winning the Red River Rivalry) and notable performances (Michigan looking formidable), but brought no change at the top.
This is the second in our regular series examining the College Football Playoff picture. We’ll merge likely scenarios with performance in our grades 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, with one team per conference making it and one conference missing out.
For now, and based on perceived overall conference strength, the ACC remains that unfortunate conference, but that can and likely will change as events play out — and Clemson has a strong case of its own right now, despite not making our list of four here.
Ohio State Buckeyes
The reigning champions continue to tweak their offense in search of a game plan that gets the most out of the considerable talent at their disposal. Running back Ezekiel Elliott (+4.6 overall grade against Maryland) and wide receiver Michael Thomas (+1.3) continue to be their most consistent offensive weapons, while Braxton Miller (+3.1) had his most productive game against the Terrapins since switching to receiver.
This week’s wrinkle saw QB Cardale Jones remain the starter, but J.T. Barrett deployed as the red-zone quarterback, and rushing for three touchdowns. Barrett’s mobility gives the Buckeyes more punch when the field gets compressed in red-zone situations. It worked out well, as both Jones (+1.9) and Barrett (+0.8) earned positive grads.
Ohio State’s body of work remains underwhelming, and as conference play heats up around the country and other teams claim notable victories, that is becoming an issue. Michigan looks to be a threat in the Big Ten heading into next week’s showdown with Michigan State, and whichever of those teams win in Ann Arbor next week will seize control of the Big Ten East. Ohio State will have its shot at both teams, but not until November.
Still, though, there’s a lot to like about the Buckeyes in our grades. The quarterback play needs to continue to improve, but they have an elite running game and one of the best defenses in the country in every facet: run D, pass rush and pass coverage.
Florida has gained a little cushion in the SEC East after grinding out a road win over Missouri. The offense failed to reach its highs of the previous week, making the impressive performance against Ole Miss look like an anomaly rather than the norm. Regardless, that win over the Rebels gives the Gators the strongest body of work in the SEC at this point, and keeps them at the top of the pile.
While the Gators offense remains inconsistent, the defense continues to impress. They entered this week with nine of 11 defensive starters grading positively, and DT/DE Jonathan Bullard (+17.7 overall grade), LB Jarrad Davis (+10.0), DE Alex McCalister (+9.9) and S Marcus Maye (+9.0) particularly impressive. That quartet had combined for 61 defensive stops through the first five games.
Next up for the Gators is a forbidding trip Baton Rouge to face LSU and star RB Leonard Fournette, so the defense will have to be at its best again. The winner of that game will emerge as the SEC’s top playoff threat, alongside the winner of the Alabama-Texas A&M matchup.
Utah is the last undefeated team standing in the Pac-12 after overcoming Cal in Salt Lake City, a victory was built upon strong defense and a productive ground attack. Running back Devontae Booker rushed for 222 yards and two touchdowns. Booker had graded positively in each game this season on his way to a +8.8 overall grade entering Week 6, making him one of our top-rated backs in all of college football.
This wasn’t an entirely convincing performance from the Utes. Even though the defense was able to hassle Cal QB Jared Goff, forcing five interceptions and six turnovers in total, the Utes offense failed to make the most of those turnovers. That gave Cal the chance to win the game in the final minute, but the defense prevailed.
Convincing or not, this win combined with the blowout over Oregon in Eugene and a victory over Michigan that looks better by the week, gives Utah a body of work to match any team in the country. The bigger question is whether the Utes can maintain that impressive standing with suspect play in the passing game and pass coverage. In particular, remaining road trips at USC, Washington and Arizona later on this season loom large, and Stanford has been impressing out of the Pac-12 North.
Once again Baylor took care of business, easily swatting aside an undermanned Kansas team as expected. Baylor was 52-7 up at the half, handing the second half over to the team’s second-stringers.
The Bears entered the week with either the Big 12’s top graded player, or one of the top-graded players, at every position on offense. That is best illustrated on the offensive line, where all five starting lineman entered the week as the highest-graded player in the conference at his position. That is undoubtedly skewed by their lack of competition thus far, but it is extremely impressive nonetheless.
Baylor should get more of a test next week as they host West Virginia, but the Mountaineers are 0-2 in conference, and lost their star corner Karl Joseph (+11.5) to injury last week, so it’s debatable just how much of a test they can pose. TCU also remains undefeated out of the Big 12, and the Horned Frogs are an impressive team in the passing game in their own right, but for now our grades give Baylor a fairly significant edge.