Every College Football Playoff Contender's Biggest Flaw

Brad ShepardFeatured ColumnistJuly 6, 2017

Every College Football Playoff Contender's Biggest Flaw

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    Calvin Ridley is electrifying, but can Jalen Hurts consistently get him the football?
    Calvin Ridley is electrifying, but can Jalen Hurts consistently get him the football?Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Every year, even the best college football teams in the country have their weak links, and 2017 is no different.

    During last season's run, eventual national championship Clemson showed its youth during a dry spell that culminated with a loss to an inferior Pittsburgh team that made play after play down the stretch to beat the Tigers.

    Once Deshaun Watson got his team into the College Football Playoffs, he shredded an Alabama defense that was statistically one of the best ever, exposing the Tide's flawed secondary. 

    That was two prime examples of top teams that had soft spots ultimately exploited.

    This year, Alabama and Clemson again are expected to be among the teams battling for the playoffs. Though they're reloaded and appear primed to be among the elite again, they aren't perfect; far from it.

    UA has a new offensive coordinator in Brian Daboll who must resurrect the downfield passing game. The Tigers must move on from the Watson era and rebrand their offense with a new signal-caller. These are question marks and two of the more noticeable flaws being discussed this offseason.

    Using B/R colleague David Kenyon's recent '17 rankings predictions, let's examine those concerns and other flaws among the top playoff contenders for the upcoming season.

10. Michigan: Lack of Experienced Leadership

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    Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh gets plenty of credit for turning around the Wolverines after a rough spell, and he's doing a fantastic job recruiting to Ann Arbor as well.

    But former coach Brady Hoke didn't exactly leave the cupboard bare for Big Blue, as evidenced by 11 Wolverines getting picked in this year's NFL draft, which was the largest number of prospects selected off any college football program.

    From Jabrill Peppers to Taco Charlton to Jake Butt, Michigan lost studs on both sides of the ball. Many of those guys are going to be extremely difficult to replace, even with all the blue-chip players Harbaugh lured to Michigan.

    Players like linebacker Devin Bush Jr. and defensive lineman Rashan Gary are around, though, and they don't sound like timid players concerned about seizing control over a green group.

    "We don't like to say we're rebuilding, we like to say we're reloading," Bush told MLive.com's Nick Baumgardner. "We lost a lot of guys from last year. But we still have a lot of guys who can run, a lot of guys who can hit and a lot of guys who have good instincts." 

    Talent can trump all, but what's going to happen when the Wolverines get in those close games? Not having a bunch of seasoned vets is a concern, and it's something that appears to be a chink in the armor right now.

9. Washington: Shoring Up the Defensive Backs After Departing Talent

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    Chris Petersen has proven time after time that his programs have staying power once he builds them back to the top.

    So, a year after the Washington Huskies were trounced by Alabama in the College Football Playoffs, there isn't any reason to think that was just a nice little one-year story.

    Petersen brings back one of the nation's top quarterbacks in Jake Browning along with plenty of offensive playmakers and some top-shelf defensive linemen.

    But there are some question marks on the back end of the defense, especially after star safety Budda Baker and cornerbacks Sidney Jones and Kevin King left for the NFL. They took with them a bevy of reps and a ton of talent.

    Defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake still has several potential playmakers with which to work, led by returning starting strong safety Jojo McIntosh and Taylor Rapp, a free safety candidate who played a lot toward the end of the '16 season.

    Stud freshman Byron Murphy and veteran Jordan Miller look to be potential starters at corner, and there's depth behind them. But can they live up to the production of Baker, Jones and King, who were a major part of U-Dub's defensive success?

    That's a big question. If they can turn that flaw into flash, the Huskies may be back in the final four.

8. Oklahoma: No Proven Marquee Running Backs

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    One look at Oklahoma's running backs depth chart shows you all you need to see from the Sooners: new head coach Lincoln Riley has a lot of potential lining up behind star senior quarterback Baker Mayfield.

    But potential doesn't always equal production.

    Replacing Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine, who each had more than 1,000 rushing yards and were integral parts of the Sooners' high-octane offense, won't be easy. Mixon's receiving skills out of the backfield are particularly daunting to replicate.

    With Mayfield and crew, the passing game will be strong. But the Sooners must find balance in their runners.

    Rodney Anderson and Abdul Adams are the veterans with experience just waiting their turn. Freshman Trey Sermon and JUCO transfer Marcelias Sutton are players everybody wants to see in live action.

    Anderson, in particular, is generating a buzz. DallasNews.com recently noted just how excited everybody is to see him blossom.

    Over-hyped players in spring practice are nothing new, but it's been a long time since Oklahoma coaches were this excited to see a player on the field. Despite missing most of his first two years in Norman with season-ending injuries, Anderson looks like he hasn't missed a day in the weight room and could be the all-star tailback he was billed as two years ago in the absences of Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine.

    If Anderson can match the hype, OU will be fine.

7. Oklahoma State: Turning Around the Defensive Fortunes

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    Few teams benefit from playing in the pass-happy Big 12 than the Oklahoma State Cowboys.

    But offense giveth, and it taketh away.

    A season ago, the Cowboys were prolific offensively, but they were horrendous on the other side of the ball, allowing more than 7 yards per pass attempt, which was seventh in the conference. Coach Mike Gundy's team was also 92nd overall in total defense.

    There's a lack of proven playmakers in that secondary, and even with Clemson graduate transfer Adrian Baker coming over, the Pokes need numerous guys to step up on all levels of their defense.

    There's no question OSU is going to put up some serious points with senior quarterback Mason Rudolph guiding a pinball offense with the best receiving corps in the country and Justice Hill as a potential all-conference safety blanket at running back.

    If the Cowboys are going to compete for anything meaningful, however, they've got to get better on defense. There's no particular area, either. It all needs to improve. With all the comparisons to a memorable 2011 season, Gundy told ESPN.com's Jake Trotter there are a lot of comparisons.

    But there was a silver lining that should excite Cowboys fans.

    "The good news is, maybe better on defense than we were then," Gundy said. It's time to prove it.

6. LSU: Lack of Passing "Splash" Plays

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Throughout the final years of the Les Miles era in Baton Rouge, a disjointed passing game led to the unraveling of an era as the Cam Cameron experience at offensive coordinator failed.

    In his first full season as head coach, Ed Orgeron will try to flip that script.

    He'll do so with Purdue transfer and rising senior Danny Etling leading the way before a strong group of underclassmen try to take the Tigers to the next level in the passing game. Helping him along the way will be new coordinator Matt Canada.

    The Tigers won a coaching lottery when they lured Canada to the bayou after a successful tenure with the Panthers where he turned Nathan Peterman into a passing threat. Though LSU didn't look anything like a passing powerhouse in the spring game, there is hope.

    Canada is known for finding creative ways to generate offense. Though Etling is more of a game manager, he'll need to get the ball downfield to some of those receiving playmakers who have forgotten what it's like to catch long passes.

    If the Tigers can open things up and rely on Etling to spread the ball around, their offense can be elite with Heisman Trophy candidate running back Derrius Guice as the centerpiece. But they've got to keep teams more honest than they did during the Leonard Fournette era.

    If they don't, quality opponents will load the box and dare LSU to do what it hasn't been able to in recent years: beat them with the pass.

5. Clemson: Deshaun Watson Is Now a Houston Texan

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    No matter how many times you see it written about or hear it discussed this offseason, it remains the biggest story in college football: How will Clemson replace Deshaun Watson?

    Much like Cam Newton was at Auburn, Watson is a generational talent who could shred event the best defenses in college football when he was on.

    The Tigers have a plethora of talent at quarterback, but there's no way they can expect to approach the PlayStation numbers posted by Watson's exceptional right arm.

    Kelly Bryant may be more of a duel-threat signal-caller who currently has the lead in the race, but he doesn't look like the long-term answer. Hunter Johnson is the high-profile freshman everybody wants to see, but he's a first-year player who is only a dropback threat and couldn't seize the gig in his first spring.

    Trevor Lawrence doesn't arrive until 2018.

    So, with Deon Cain, Hunter Renfrow and company ready to take their place in line after Mike Williams, Artavis Scott and Jordan Leggett went to the NFL, they've got to have somebody consistently get them the ball first.

    With talent on both lines of scrimmage, a bunch of offensive playmakers and as good of a stable of talent as anybody in the country ready to step up, the Tigers just need to find a dynamic quarterback.

    Somebody must step up if there's going to be a repeat.

4. USC: Concerns Galore on the Offensive Front

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    Three USC Trojan offensive linemen from the breakout 2016 season are now on NFL rosters, including both All-American starting tackles in Chad Wheeler and Zach Banner. Guard Damien Mama left early, too.

    With a Heisman Trophy-caliber quarterback in redshirt sophomore Sam Darnold and a stable of runners led by Ronald Jones II, that's not what you want to see. 

    The Trojans appear readied for another run after reeling off a dynamic close to the 2016 season. But somebody has to protect Darnold and open holes for the backs. Who's that going to be?

    Chuma Edoga is a premiere candidate at left tackle, a former heavily recruited prospect who appears to be the next in a long line of great USC linemen. But, what after that?

    Injuries didn't help matters this spring, and the line is so thin that defensive linemen Jacob Daniel and Jack Jones have practiced there this summer, according to Scout's Shotgun Spratling

    The situation may not be as dire once the season starts. Toa Lobendahn is an almost certain starter once he recovers from an injury suffered last season. Viane Talamaivao is another player who has a bright future in L.A.

    But they can't take forever to mesh. This is the year the Trojans should compete for it all, and it just may be Darnold's final season before getting selected high in the NFL draft. That's why the Trojans need to put everything together on the O-line and build depth in the process.

    Anything less could sabotage a promising season early.

3. Ohio State: Proven Leaders in the Secondary

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Every year, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer is going to boast some of the country's most talented players ready to step in and take over at every position.

    That's no different for the 2017 secondary, which must find a way to replace NFL first-round draft picks Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley and Malik Hooker.

    If you're one of those Buckeyes fans more concerned about the passing game, you're probably in good company. But Meyer promised he'd address that after an embarrassing, season-ending annihilation at the hands of Clemson, and he did.

    Bringing in former Indiana head coach Kevin Wilson will help quarterback J.T. Barrett realize his immense talent.

    The biggest concern should be in the secondary. Though it's littered with former 5-star talents and guys everybody wanted, nobody knows what the future holds for the Buckeyes secondary that must replace all those quality snaps and stats.

    Erick Smith and Damon Webb must step up on the back end of the defense, and though everybody is excited about JUCO transfer Kendall Sheffield, who began his career at Alabama, he hasn't played many meaningful collegiate snaps yet.

    Denzel Ward and Damon Arnette may be ahead of Sheffield in the pecking order, too.

    There's going to be waves of names you've heard of dotting the depth chart, but all those guys must produce to help the Buckeyes emerge in the rugged Big Ten. Anything less than a conference title is a disappointment in Meyer's tenure.

2. Florida State: Keeping Deondre Francois Upright

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    Though it became a customary site to see talented redshirt freshman Deondre Francois leading Florida State to some strong offensive numbers down the stretch a season ago, he rarely did it with a clean jersey.

    Entering his sophomore year, Francois won't have star running back Dalvin Cook to help him out. So he needs more time to operate under center without fear of pulling sod clods out of his face mask.

    Working behind a young offensive line in 2016, Francois was sacked a whopping 34 times. Any number approaching that this season, and the Seminoles will be outside looking at the playoff picture.

    It's vital FSU fields a much better offensive line than it did a season ago.

    Considering they must replace starting left tackle Rod Johnson and may be fielding a new center, that's going to be a tall order, especially considering the 'Noles start the season in Atlanta against Alabama.

    Center Alec Eberle and tackle Landon Dickerson missed the spring recovering from injuries, and there are a ton of question marks for head coach Jimbo Fisher up front as the summer months heat up. They impressed this spring with a lack of depth, but how good can they be?

    "Those guys up front are learning and getting better," Fisher told the Tallahassee Democrat's Wayne E. McGahee III this spring.

    That didn't say anything about them being there yet. And the Seminoles must open the season against what is expected to be one of the top D-lines in the country. That's going to be a tough training ground.

    But if Francois can get out of the Alabama game with a relatively clean jersey, it may bode well for the rest of the season.

1. Alabama: Downfield Passing Game

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    For all the praise Jalen Hurts received as a true freshman starting quarterback for Alabama a season ago, he had to endure his share of blame once the Crimson Tide couldn't complete a memorable season.

    The first-year Texan signal-caller showed flashes of being an elite dual-threat weapon who could carry the team with his legs and get the ball to receivers on quick passes. He rarely was asked to do too much.

    Those times when then-offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin tried to put the game on his shoulders, however, Hurts struggled. That ultimately hurt Alabama in the College Football Playoffs.

    Hurts' CFB Film Room passing chart tweeted prior to the national championship game was a prelude of what was to come. Entering that game, he completed just 33 percent of his passes with two touchdowns and four interceptions on passes beyond 20 yards downfield.

    That continued in the 35-31 loss to end the season.

    "We wanted to sit down as much as possible and make him sit in the pocket and throw the ball," Clemson linebacker Ben Boulware told AL.com's Rainer Sabin after the championship game. "We knew he had trouble with that. It was very simple game plan. We probably ran four or five plays the entire game."

    That should sound scary to UA fans.

    With so much talent around him and one of the nation's top receivers in Calvin Ridley at his disposal, it's vital that Hurts takes the next step in his passing development under new coordinator Brian Daboll. Alabama is too good everywhere else to let him endure a season-long struggle.

    If Hurts falters, it may be time to see if Tua Tagovailoa can do any better.

    Recruit rankings and information courtesy of Scout unless otherwise noted. All stats gathered from CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.