Stanford among top four playoff contenders

Kevin Connaghan looks at PFF grades and team resumes to come up with a list of the most likely candidates to make the College Football Playoff.

| 2 years ago
(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Stanford among top four playoff contenders

Week 8 was the first of two weeks light on marquee matchups, but that didn’t mean it lacked College Football Playoff implications. Convincing wins for Ohio State and Clemson showed that they are hitting top form as they enter the pivotal point of the season. Florida State’s dramatic defeat at the hands of Georgia Tech leaves the Seminoles with an uphill struggle, and hurts the ACC as a whole. Utah losing to USC causes the Utes to lose a little ground in the playoff race, and takes them out of our four nominees.

This is the fourth 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, 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, the ACC remains that unfortunate conference the ACC. It’s hugely unfortunate for Clemson, who are playing terrifically on defense and look like a legitimate playoff contender. However, Clemson could really have done with Florida State remaining undefeated until they faced off in Week 10, to give them a second notable victory to go alongside their win over Notre Dame.

Here are our four playoff picks coming out of Week 8:

Michigan State Spartans

The Spartans appeared to be in a shootout with Indiana, but were able to assert control in the second half and pull away for the win. QB Connor Cook came into the game with a +17.2 overall grade, with +13.5 of that coming in the previous two games. He carried that impressive form into this game, throwing for 398 yards and four touchdowns.

The Spartans do have a couple of major concerns. First, the secondary continues to look vulnerable, giving up 308 yards and three touchdowns to Hoosiers QB Nate Sudfeld (one of PFF’s lowest-graded QBs coming into the game). Second, injuries continue to pile up for the offensive line. The bye week couldn’t come at a better time for a unit that, when healthy, is one of the team’s strengths.

LSU Tigers

Leonard Fournette continues to be the focal point of the LSU offense. He rumbled for 150 rushing yards and a touchdown against Western Kentucky, and entered the week as the owner of our No. 1 rushing grade. He had forced 45 missed tackles on 149 touches, giving him an impressive 126.1 elusive rating.

The most encouraging thing for the Tigers has been the emergence of QB Brandon Harris as the SEC’s highest-graded quarterback. Harris earned a season-high +3.6 overall grade against Florida one week ago. Then he passed for a career-best 286 yards and three touchdowns against the Hilltoppers. Given the talented receivers at his disposal, this bodes well for LSU; teams haven’t been able to stop Fournette by loading up the box, so how can they expect to slow him down if they have to respect the pass as well?

Baylor Bears

As of yet, no team has really been able to slow the Baylor offense down. The 45 points put up against Iowa State was their season low, but that had more to do with the weather than the opposition. Wide receiver Corey Coleman (+16.0 overall grade ahead of this game, one of the best in the nation) and running back Shock Linwood (+9.2, also a top performer at his position) were once again the stars offensively, accounting for 279 yards and three scores between them.

However, the big concern for the Bears is the health of QB Seth Russell, who was left with a fractured bone in his neck after a helmet-to-helmet collision on a run. The extent of the injury is unclear, but if he’s out for a while the Bears will have to turn to Jarrett Stidham. A star recruit, the true freshman has impressed in mop-up duty this season, earning a +6.0 overall grade prior to Week 8. Stidham’s 92.3 accuracy percentage and a 75.0 percent accuracy on deep passes (those that travel 20-plus yards in the air) are gaudy numbers, but come from a small sample size and at the tail end of blow out victories. We’ve left Baylor in a playoff spot for now, but the quarterback situation leaves them in a tenuous position.

Stanford Cardinal

Stanford have been the Pac-12’s best team for a few weeks, but the opening week loss to Northwestern was an aberration on the record that kept them behind an undefeated Utah team. However, with Utah losing to USC, Stanford are now the conferences strongest contender for a playoff berth.

While normally known for their defense, it’s the Cardinal’s offensive prowess that makes them so dangerous this season. QB Kevin Hogan (+13.0) is playing the best football of his career, while RB Christian McCaffrey (+14.0) and TE Austin Hooper (+6.5) give the offense some punch. They are able to do so because the offensive line is playing to such a high level, with LG Joshua Garnett (+21.6) in particular standing out as one of the best offensive linemen in the country.

Despite that loss to Northwestern, Stanford’s playoff chances are in their own hands. Win out and they should be in, and they have the talent to be competitive once they get there.

| Analyst

Kevin has been an analyst at Pro Football Focus since 2014, with a particular focus on college football.

  • Paul Cobb

    This article is stupid. If Clemson goes undefeated and Stanford still makes it in with 1 loss there will be an outrage.

  • crosseyedlemon

    Stanford has been under the radar all season and it has probably made the coaches job a bit easier. I agree completely that they can hang in there with the best teams outside their division.