Updated playoff picks: OK State, Bama, Clemson, Stanford
After a relatively quiet finish to October, the college football season entered November with a bang and plenty of chaos. Three of the College Football Playoff committee’s top 10 fell to defeat, seven of the top 20. Alabama stopped Leonard Fournette and defeated LSU, Oklahoma State overcame TCU, and Nebraska finally found themselves on the winning side of a late drama as they downed Michigan State in a game that finished with a controversial call.
This is the sixth 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.
It is possible that one conference sends more than one representative to the postseason, that Notre Dame can force its way in by winning out, or that a team from outside the Power-5, such as Memphis or Houston, makes it in. But most likely the four teams will be drawn from the Power-5 conferences, one team per conference with one conference missing out.
This week it’s the Big Ten who miss out, thanks to Michigan State’s loss to Nebraska; the Cornhuskers were able to take advantage of a suspect Spartans secondary. Neither of the conference’s remaining undefeated teams, Ohio State and Iowa, have defeated a significant enough opponent to force its way in at this point. Ohio State’s best victory came against a 7-3 Penn State team, while Iowa’s was over 8-2 Wisconsin. If Ohio State wins out, it will have victories over Michigan State, Michigan and likely Iowa (in the Big Ten title game) to its credit. Given the Buckeyes’ inconsistent play, we won’t truly know how good they are until they’ve faced those tougher opponents.
Here are the top four contenders to make the College Football Playoff, based on their PFF grades and playoff resumes:
Clemson got off to the worst possible start against Florida State, letting the Seminoles’ superb running back, Dalvin Cook, slip free for a 75-yard touchdown run inside the opening minute. They couldn’t truly stop Cook all game, which isn’t surprising, as Cook entered the game with the fifth-best grade among the nation’s running backs. However, the Tigers’ defense was able to shut the rest of the Seminoles offense down, limiting them to adding just two field goals in the next 59 minutes.
Clemson’s offense had a sluggish start, but soon got going. Quarterback Deshaun Watson threw for 297 yards and ran for 107 more, running Wayne Gallman rushed for 103 yards and a touchdown. Watson and Gallman entered the game as the Tigers’ highest-rated players on offense, and show little sign of slowing down.
Victory over FSU ensures that Clemson has won the ACC Atlantic and are on their way to the ACC title game, likely against a rising North Carolina team. The Tigers are well-positioned to make the playoff, and based on our PFF grades, appear to be a force to be reckoned with if they do get there.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama entered the LSU game with our second-highest cumulative defensive grade. Every one of the 14 defensive linemen and linebackers who had played 60-plus snaps this season had a positive run defense grade. Defensive lineman Jarran Reed led the team with an outstanding +27.4 run defense grade, second-best in the nation among interior defenders. All of that was on show against LSU. The Crimson Tide defensive front seven thoroughly dominated the line of scrimmage, leaving the Tigers’ star running back Leonard Fournette without any room to operate.
Conversely, Alabama’s offensive line were able to give Derrick Henry plenty of open lanes to run through, and he took full advantage, rumbling for 210 yards and three touchdowns on 38 carries. He has been one of the tougher backs to tackle all season long.
With Ole Miss losing to Arkansas, only an unexpected loss is going to keep Alabama from the SEC Championship game and a College Football Playoff berth.
Stanford didn’t feel much love from the playoff selection committee, who left the Pac-12’s front-runner out of the top 10 in their first rankings. Even so, the Cardinal continue to have one of the best offenses in the nation, and had little trouble dispatching Colorado. Christian McCaffrey (+24.9) was our third-highest graded running back after Week 9, and had another 100 yard game, rushing for 147 yards.
The Stanford defense may not be at its dominant best, but it is still playing well. The starting defensive line of Brennan Scarlett (+13.9), Solomon Thomas (+13.1) and Aziz Shittu (+11.4) is the second-best run-stopping unit in the Pac-12. That run defense will be vital when Stanford hosts a resurgent Oregon team next week.
Oklahoma State Cowboys
The Cowboys make a somewhat surprising appearance in the playoff picture after dismantling TCU in Stillwater, with one of the best team performances we’ve seen this season. Four first-half touchdown passes from QB Mason Rudolph gave the Cowboys as 28-9 lead at the half, a lead they never looked like losing. Rudolph entered the game with a +30.5 passing grade, fourth-best in the nation. Led by DE Emmanuel Ogbah, who entered the weekend with the highest pass-rushing grade in the nation, the Oklahoma State defense was able to pressure TCU’s star QB Trevone Boykin into throwing four interceptions.
The convincing manner of victory over what had looked like a strong TCU team, is enough to spring Oklahoma State ahead of Ohio State and the Big Ten. With Baylor suddenly looking fallible, and Oklahoma having lost inexplicably to Texas, Oklahoma State looks like the Big 12’s best hope for a playoff berth right now. They still have to play Baylor and Oklahoma, but with both games taking place in Stillwater, the Cowboys couldn’t ask for a better opportunity.