The Biggest Offseason Question Mark for Top College Football Playoff Contenders

Kerry MillerCollege Basketball National AnalystMay 18, 2017

The Biggest Offseason Question Mark for Top College Football Playoff Contenders

0 of 8

    Jalen Hurts (2) and Nick Saban
    Jalen Hurts (2) and Nick SabanJohn Bazemore/Associated Press

    Even the college football teams with the best shot at an undefeated record are far from perfect, as Alabama, Ohio State, Florida State and others have major question marks to address before the 2017 season begins.

    The top two College Football Playoff contenders from the SEC both have some concerns in their passing game. All three of the Big Ten's candidates are lacking in defensive experience. And do Heisman candidates Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold and Deondre Francois have enough protection from their offensive line and/or support from their receiving corps?

    Rather than an entirely doom-and-gloom article, we identified the biggest question mark for each of these teams and then offered both an optimistic and a pessimistic view on how it will play out.

    Teams on the following slides are listed in ascending order of their consensus national championship odds on OddsShark.

8. Penn State Nittany Lions

1 of 8

    Slowing down the opposing run game is a big concern for Penn State.
    Slowing down the opposing run game is a big concern for Penn State.AJ Mast/Associated Press

    The Question Mark: Run-stoppers

            

    Glass Half Empty

    Allowing more than 450 passing yards in the Rose Bowl was a major red flag for Penn State's defense, but the bigger problem throughout the season was shutting down the opposition's rush attack.

    In the two regular-season losses to Pittsburgh and Michigan, the Nittany Lions allowed a combined 667 rushing yards. They gave up at least 150 yards in 50 percent of their games.

    Worse yet, the best edge-rushers from that rosterGarrett Sickels and Evan Schwanare both gone, leaving serious concerns at defensive end heading into the summer.

    The Nittany Lions do get back 16 starters from last year, but needing to replace the two team leaders in sacks isn't a great start to solving a defensive woe. Neither is losing starting linebacker Brandon Bell.

             

    Glass Half Full

    The best defense is a good offense, and the Nittany Lions might have the most explosive offense in the country. They could just about start two tackling dummies at defensive end and still have better luck against opposing running backs than other teams will have against Saquon Barkley.

    In part because that offense found its stride late in the year, the rush defense was much better in the second half of last season than the first, allowing 99.6 yards per game as opposed to 203.0.

    As long as Penn State keeps putting points on the board, opponents won't have much of a chance to establish the run. Also, redshirt freshmen Shane Simmons, Daniel Joseph and Shaka Toney could each make a significant, positive impact at defensive end.

7. LSU Tigers

2 of 8

    Beyond D.J. Chark, LSU's WR depth chart is a mystery.
    Beyond D.J. Chark, LSU's WR depth chart is a mystery.John Raoux/Associated Press

    The Question Mark: Passing game

           

    Glass Half Empty

    Purdue transfer Danny Etling didn't exactly shine in his inaugural season with LSU. He completed less than 60 percent of his passes, averaged just 193 yards per game and threw for 11 touchdowns in 11 games. 

    An even bigger concern is that almost all of his favorite targets are gone. Of the six Tigers with at least 110 receiving yards last season, D.J. Chark is the only one returning for another year.

    Big things are expected from LSU because of its stout defense and its backfield beast better known as Derrius Guice, but moving the ball through the air could be more of a problem in 2017 than it already was in 2016.

    Depending upon how things go in early games against BYU and Mississippi State, don't be surprised if true freshman Myles Brennan gets a chance to see what he can do at quarterback.

             

    Glass Half Full

    The addition of Matt Canada at offensive coordinator is going to be a game-changer for the Tigers.

    LSU's offense was rather conventional/pro-style under Cam Cameron, but Canada should make things a little more flashy and gadgety, finding creative ways to get his best players the ball as often as possible.

    There's also a reasonable assumption of significant growth in the returning wide receivers. Stephen Sullivan (redshirt), Drake Davis and Dee Anderson were all 4-star recruits in last year's class.

    Following a year of seasoning, they should give Etling more and better options than he had last year.

6. Michigan Wolverines

3 of 8

    Wilton Speight is one of the only returning starters for the Wolverines.
    Wilton Speight is one of the only returning starters for the Wolverines.Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The Question Mark: Overall experience

              

    Glass Half Empty

    Michigan had 11 players selected in the 2017 NFL draftmore than any other school. That's a nice bragging right until the time comes to put together a roster for the following season.

    The Wolverines lost a total of 17 starters, including 10 of the 11 first-string guys on defense. It's because of all that veteran talent that they had one of the most impenetrable defenses in the nation.

    It's a good thing they went to Vatican City earlier this offseason, because it's going to take some sort of divine intervention for the Wolverines to plug all those holes.

    Rashan Gary should be a beast as he transitions to a starting role on the defensive line, but this secondary is loaded with unknowns.

            

    Glass Half Full

    Ohio State lost 12 players to the NFL in 2016 and made it to the College Football Playoff less than nine months later. There's no good reason to believe Jim Harbaugh and Michigan can't do the same thing.

    Figuring out the defense will be dicey, but the Wolverines are still in great shape on offense. QB Wilton Speight is back, and they should have a four-headed monster at running back in Chris Evans, Ty Isaac, Karan Higdon and redshirt freshman Kareem Walker.

    If 5-star freshman Donovan Peoples-Jones is able to make an immediate impact at receiver, Michigan could be better on offense than it was in 2016.

5. Oklahoma Sooners

4 of 8

    Baker Mayfield
    Baker MayfieldButch Dill/Associated Press

    The Question Mark: Talent around Baker Mayfield

           

    Glass Half Empty

    A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and a quarterback is only as good as the options surrounding him. Unfortunately for Baker Mayfield, most of his cohorts from last season are out of the picture.

    Dede Westbrook, Joe Mixon, Samaje Perine and Geno Lewis are all gone, leaving Mark Andrews (489 receiving yards) and Abdul Adams (283 rushing yards) as the top returning options to move the ball down the field.

    Others will step up to help fill the voids, but we're talking about trying to replace 4,991 total yards from scrimmage and 47 touchdowns in one offseason. For Oklahoma to win the Big 12 again, Mayfield might need to be a magician.

             

    Glass Half Full

    In Mayfield's first season at Oklahoma, Sterling Shepard and Durron Neal combined for more than 1,800 receiving yards. When those two graduated, Mayfield helped turn Westbrook into a Heisman finalist while working Lewis, Nick Basquine and Jeffery Mead into the passing game in a big way.

    Why can't he do the same this year by molding Andrews into a star and getting major contributions from the likes of JUCO transfer Marquise Brown and redshirt sophomore Rodney Anderson? Lack of an established running back could be a problem, but that just means more passing yards for Mayfield.

4. USC Trojans

5 of 8

    Chuma Edoga will be Sam Darnold's bodyguard on the field in 2017.
    Chuma Edoga will be Sam Darnold's bodyguard on the field in 2017.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The Question Mark: Injuries and departures on the offensive line

             

    Glass Half Empty

    Starting offensive tackles Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner have exhausted their collegiate eligibility, as has guard Damien Mama. This leaves the Trojans with some unanswered questions about their offensive line that only grew more troublesome during spring practices. 

    As reported by Zach Helfand for the LA Times, several of the projected starters have suffered injuries since the end of last season, including a partially torn biceps for Viane Talamaivao and a herniated disc for Nico Falah.

    Sam Darnold is fairly mobile, but a porous offensive line would be a major problem. The Trojans only allowed 12 sacks in the entire 2016 season. If they don't figure out some answers in the next few months, they'll eclipse that mark before the end of September.

             

    Glass Half Full

    For a right-handed QB, the most important position on the offensive line is left tackle, and the Trojans are in great shape there with 2015 5-star recruit Chuma Edoga.

    In addition to Edoga, USC signed two 4-star linemen in the class of 2015, three each in 2016 and 2017, as well as a 5-star addition (Austin Jackson) this year.

    Before you slip into full-blown panic that USC's offensive line will regress to 2013-2015 levelswhen it allowed an average of 34.7 sacks per year—take note of the fact that keeping the quarterback off his back has been a huge recruiting focus for the Trojans for the past several years.

    The new starters aren't as experienced as the departed ones, but there is still a ton of talented big men to protect Darnold.

3. Florida State Seminoles

6 of 8

    Who will be on the receiving end of these Deondre Francois bombs?
    Who will be on the receiving end of these Deondre Francois bombs?Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    The Question Mark: Receiving options

             

    Glass Half Empty

    Four players recorded at least 30 receptions last season for Florida State: Travis Rudolph (56), Kermit Whitfield (34), Dalvin Cook (33) and Jesus Wilson (30).

    One other trait those four players share is that they won't be suiting up for the Seminoles in 2017, leaving a Heisman candidate at quarterback (Deondre Francois) with limited proven targets.

    Moreover, the coaching staff did minimal recruiting to prepare for this transition. Keith Gavin was the only wide receiver the Seminoles signed in 2016, and he didn't have a single catch last year.

    They'll be forced to put a lot of faith in guys like Gavin, George Campbell and Da'Vante Phillips who barely saw the field last season, if at all.

             

    Glass Half Full

    Nyqwan Murray and Auden Tate each finished last season with at least 25 receptions, 400 yards and five touchdowns, so the cupboard isn't completely barren.

    Tight ends Ryan Izzo and Mavin Saunders are also back in the picture after combining for 29 receptions and 409 yards.

    So, it's really just a matter of finding a third- and fourth-best wide receiver, which shouldn't be that tough with a quarterback this good.

    Neither Murray nor Tate was a key cog in the offense in 2015, but Francois helped turn them both into serviceable players now ready to make the leap into starting roles. Perhaps he can do the same for Gavin and others.

2. Ohio State Buckeyes

7 of 8

    How badly will the Buckeyes miss Malik Hooker (left) and Marshon Lattimore (right)?
    How badly will the Buckeyes miss Malik Hooker (left) and Marshon Lattimore (right)?Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press/Associated Press

    The Question Mark: Inexperience in the secondary

             

    Glass Half Empty

    As fun as it was for the Buckeye faithful to hear the names of Marshon Lattimore, Malik Hooker and Gareon Conley all called on the first night of the NFL draft, now the reality sets in that Ohio State is tasked with replacing three first-round defensive backs.

    There isn't much time to figure things out, either, as 2016 Heisman third-place finisher Baker Mayfield and the Oklahoma Sooners are going to try to come throw the ball all around the Horseshoe in the second week of the season.

    The Buckeyes added some highly talented secondary players in this year's recruiting class, but it'll likely be up to 2016 reserves like Jordan Fuller, Denzel Ward and Damon Arnette to step into starting roles.

             

    Glass Half Full

    Replacing top draft picks is just a way of life at Ohio State. In the 2016 draft, the Buckeyes sent 12 guys to the NFL, including five of the first 20 picks, and they came back even stronger to reach the College Football Playoff.

    Even the most fanatical Buckeyes supporters have to be able to see that the secondary won't be as gifted as last season, but they can find comfort in the fact that the defensive line might be every bit as dominant as the defensive backs were last year.

    It might be a little easier for receivers to get open against the Buckeyes, but best of luck to the QBs trying to avoid this pass rush to find those receivers.

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

8 of 8

    Jalen Hurts
    Jalen HurtsDavid J. Phillip/Associated Press

    The Question Mark: Consistent passing offense

             

    Glass Half Empty

    Jalen Hurts had three outstanding receiving options and a dominant team rush attack which prohibited opposing defenses from focusing on stopping him, yet he was still just an OK quarterback.

    Actually, for the final three games of the season, Hurts' play was problematic, as he completed just 47.7 percent of his passes and even struggled as a rusher.

    The addition of stud freshman QB Tua Tagovailoa is going to result in constant second-guessing of who deserves to be on the fieldespecially if things go poorly in the season opener against Florida State.

             

    Glass Half Full

    As a true freshman at the most demanding program in the nation, Hurts averaged a respectable 248.2 combined passing and rushing yards per game while leading the Crimson Tide to a 14-1 record.

    Before those final three games, when end-of-season fatigue set in and the level of competition increased, that average was 274.5 yards, which is better than Deondre Francois (272.8) or Sam Darnold (256.6) fared as freshmen.

    Alabama doesn't need its quarterback to put up Lamar Jackson numbers in order to win national championships. What it needs is a guy who can run the offense without making back-breaking mistakes while allowing the running backs and the defense to do their thing. 

    Even if he doesn't improve from last season, Hurts can be that guy. If he makes a reasonable amount of progress while transitioning to his sophomore year, he could be a star.