Picks for the College Football Playoff following Week 5
With Week 5 in the books, it’s time to start discussing perhaps the greatest debate in college football: Which four teams will ultimately make the playoff?
This is the first of what will be a regular series examining the College Football Playoff picture. Well merge likely scenarios with performance factors 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, one team per conference with one conference missing out.
For now, and based on perceived overall conference strength, I make that unfortunate conference the ACC — but that can and most likely will change as events play out.
Ohio State Buckeyes
Do the reigning champions deserve benefit of the doubt? Surely we have reached the point of the season where a team’s body of work in 2015 should be all that matters. If so, that isn’t great news for the Buckeyes. Virginia Tech, their marquee non-conference opponent has crumbled, ditto a Northern Illinois team that troubled the Buckeyes in the Horseshoe. Moreover, Ohio State continue to make expected victories look very difficult — they were pushed hard by an Indiana side that lost it’s starting running back and quarterback mid-game. Quarterback Cardale Jones struggled mightily once again, particularly when facing pressure, resulting in his PFF grade slipping to a -2.5 mark and his passer rating dropping by nearly 70 points.
However, our numbers provide reason for optimism. On defense, Joey Bosa is on pace to be PFF’s No. 1 defensive player for the second year in a row, putting up an impressive grade of +9.5 yesterday.
A strong defense and RB Ezekiel Elliott have been enough for the Buckeyes to date, but at some point they will need to the passing attack to gel. Finishing with games against Michigan State, Michigan and, assuming they keep winning, the Big Ten Championship game could propel Ohio State into contention. However, prior to that they are likely to find themselves slipping out of the picture in the weeks ahead as other teams compile better résumés. For this week at least, Ohio State cling to a playoff spot by virtue of being undefeated defending champions, but that situation will not last.
Ole Miss might have been the hottest team in the country after their Week 3 victory in Tuscaloosa, but a trip to the swamp completely changed the complexion of the SEC. The Gators defense shutdown the vaunted Rebels offense, with 16 defensive players entering the matchup with positive PFF grades. The offensive found some firepower of their own with Will Grier leading Florida to a 28-0 half-time lead.
Florida isn’t the only standout team in the SEC — Texas A&M and LSU are both undefeated and Alabama crushed Georgia in Athens, but the schedule sets out best for Florida. They have to survive a trip to Baton Rouge in two weeks, then play host to both Georgia and Florida State — on paper the toughest teams remaining on their slate. The SEC’s strength will likely ensure that whichever team finishes atop the pile goes to the playoff, and for this week at least that team looks to be Florida.
The Pac-12 is the wild west this season, with stunning results a weekly occurrence — and Utah own the most stunning. This pattern of shock results may not necessarily be good for the conferences playoff hopes, but it makes for entertaining viewing. Five weeks in to the season the conference is down to just two undefeated teams, Cal and Utah, and they face off next week in Rice-Eccles stadium — an intriguing contest of explosive offense against disruptive defense.
With wins over both Oregon and Michigan, Utah has a claim to the best record in the country right now. Whether Utah can keep winning through a tough Pac-12 schedule is largely dependent on how well QB Travis Wilson can replicate the form that earned him a +3 grade against Oregon. Given the conferences overall strength, a one-loss Pac-12 champion still has a great shot at making the playoff.
The Baylor offensive juggernaut shows little sign of slowing down in 2015. QB Seth Russell has developed an instant rapport with WR Corey Coleman, while RB Shock Linwood has dazzled, averaging 5.5 yards after contact prior to his 221 yard, two touchdown performance against Texas Tech. While the offense owns the headlines, a defense featuring DT Andrew Billings and DE’s Jamal Palmer and Shawn Oakman has teeth of its own.
With a weak out-of-conference slate, Baylor cannot afford to slip up, but the Bears look like the most balanced team in the Big 12. They have a more potent offense than Oklahoma State, a more balanced attack than Oklahoma, and appear to have more going for them on defense than an injury-depleted TCU team, though the Horned Frogs defense showed up against Texas. If Baylor win out, then the Big 12 slate gives their schedule all the weight it needs to put them firmly in the playoff picture.