Every Top 10 College Football Team's Biggest Weakness
It's hard to believe, but we have just three weeks left in the 2017 college football regular season. We've had 10 weeks of football to sort out the contenders from the pretenders for the College Football Playoff, and only five unbeaten teams remain in the Football Bowl Subdivision, including four in the Power Five conferences.
Last Saturday's seven matchups of ranked teams did plenty to sort out the nation's top teams, and we have a number of key showdowns remaining before the playoff selections are announced on Dec. 3. The nation's Top 10 teams in the Associated Press poll have proved themselves, but all have weaknesses that could stop them short of their goal of winning a national championship.
Think these teams are invincible? Think about Alabama last fall. The Crimson Tide entered the national title game No. 1 and 14-0 against Clemson. But Deshaun Watson proved the Tide's defense mortal, picking it apart for 420 yards and three touchdowns and tossing a last-second TD pass for a stunning 35-31 win. Weaknesses can be exposed at just the wrong time for your team's national championship hopes.
Based on my own observations and statistical trends, here's a look at the biggest weakness for each Top 10 team.
10. Auburn: Receiver
In an important season for Gus Malzahn, Auburn has emerged as the SEC's third-best team. Saturday's 42-27 win at Texas A&M improved the Tigers to 7-2, and with home games remaining against No. 1 Alabama and No. 2 Georgia, they will have a significant say in both the SEC title race and the College Football Playoff conversation. Malzahn's teams are known for their ground game, and junior Kerryon Johnson has emerged as a workhorse back, rushing for 100-plus yards in four of his last five games.
However, Auburn needs more consistency and explosion from its receiving corps. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham is a capable passer with 11 touchdowns against three interceptions. Leading receiver Ryan Davis has 48 catches for 461 yards and four touchdowns but averages a pedestrian 9.6 yards per catch. The Tigers need more from Darius Slayton, the No. 2 receiver. He has just 13 catches on the season for 401 yards and three scores, averaging 30.8 yards per reception. Saturday, he had two catches for 99 yards, including a 53-yard touchdown, continuing a strong run he started two games ago with four catches for 146 yards and a touchdown against Arkansas.
Auburn needs opponents to fear its passing game, and the effect would be less pressure on the backfield led by Johnson. More big passing plays and deep strikes from Slayton would do just that.
9. Washington: Cornerback Depth
If not for one bad night, Washington would be in prime position for a College Football Playoff bid. The Huskies are 8-1, with their only loss an inexplicable 13-7 defeat to Arizona State. Jake Browning is one of the nation’s top quarterbacks, with 1,907 yards and 16 touchdowns against five interceptions. Tailback Myles Gaskin gives the Huskies a premier option in the backfield with 918 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.
Washington’s defense allows 11.1 points per game, No. 2 in the nation. But the Huskies will need to stop some potent passing attacks to win the Pac-12, with Washington State looming in the Apple Cup and potentially USC in the league title game. That could be a concern given injury issues in the secondary. Starting cornerbacks Jordan Miller and Byron Murphy are sidelined. Miller is out for the season with a broken ankle, and Murphy has missed six games with his return from a broken foot unclear.
Washington is leaning on sophomores Myles Bryant and Austin Joyner, but it’s hard to replace the experience of Miller, who has played 34 games with the Huskies. Washington State’s Luke Falk and USC’s Sam Darnold could exploit that youth and put extra pressure on Washington's explosive offense to keep pace.
8. TCU: Punter
TCU enters Saturday's showdown at No. 5 Oklahoma as one of the nation's most complete teams. The Horned Frogs have an experienced quarterback in senior Kenny Hill, who has 2,009 passing yards and 15 touchdowns against five interceptions, and the nation's No. 6 scoring defense, yielding 13.9 points per game. The Frogs' only defeat came at No. 24 Iowa State, a 14-7 loss with the only score coming on KaVontae Turpin's kickoff return touchdown.
TCU's weakness shows when it is trying to put foes in difficult field position. Sophomore punter Adam Nunez has struggled, averaging 39.5 yards per punt. Overall, TCU ranks No. 113 in team punting. Nunez has put 22 kicks inside opponents' 20-yard lines, but he needs to be more consistent to help the defense with difficult tests like Oklahoma ahead.
7. Miami: Offensive Efficiency
In Mark Richt's second season at the helm, Miami appears to be one of the ACC's best teams. Saturday's dominant 28-10 win over Virginia Tech pushed the Hurricanes to 8-0 and established them as the team to beat in the ACC Coastal Division and a legit College Football Playoff contender. Miami's "turnover chain" defense yield 17.6 points per game, No. 12 nationally, and the 'Canes rank fourth nationally in turnover margin.
First-year starting quarterback Malik Rosier has been capable, with 2,264 passing yards, 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions. But he and the offense must be more efficient for the 'Canes to reach the lofty standards set from the late 1980s to the early 2000s. Miami ranks No. 120 nationally in time of possession, holding the ball for 26:42. And the Hurricanes are No. 117 nationally in third-down conversions, converting 31.3 percent of their tries. That's No. 12 in the ACC.
With difficult games like the matchup with No. 3 Notre Dame looming Saturday night, Miami needs more from Rosier and its offense to break through into the College Football Playoff.
No. 6 Wisconsin: Passing Game
Following losses from Ohio State and Penn State on Saturday, Wisconsin stands as the Big Ten's best hope for a College Football Playoff bid. At 9-0, the Badgers are the league's only team with fewer than two defeats and one of only five unbeaten teams left in the FBS. However, Wisconsin will need some help to get into the playoff. It has no wins over ranked opponents, and only two foes (Florida Atlantic and Northwestern) are currently bowl-eligible.
The Badgers have a strong running attack led by freshman tailback Jonathan Taylor, who has 1,368 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns. However, their passing game is a major question mark. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook has 15 touchdowns against nine interceptions and has thrown for 250 yards in only one game this season. The receiving corps is weak and took a big hit Saturday when top receiver Quintez Cephus left the game with a leg injury that could sideline him for the rest of the season, per Jeff Potrykus of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Cephus has 30 catches for 501 yards and six touchdowns. Tight end Troy Fumagalli has 30 receptions for 401 yards and three scores, but the top remaining receiver, A.J. Taylor, has 14 catches for 231 yards and two touchdowns. That leaves the Badgers one-dimensional and vulnerable to an upset with Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota remaining on the regular-season schedule.
5. Oklahoma: Secondary
Oklahoma is firmly in the conversation for the College Football Playoff. The Sooners are 8-1 and tied for first in the Big 12, which will send its top two teams to its revamped championship game. Oklahoma's only loss came against Iowa State, and the Sooners survived Bedlam and rival Oklahoma State in a wild 62-52 win that featured 598 passing yards and five touchdowns from senior quarterback Baker Mayfield.
Mayfield is a two-time Heisman finalist and one of the nation's top quarterbacks with 3,226 passing yards and 28 touchdowns against five interceptions. The offense hasn't missed a beat despite the departures of receiver Dede Westbrook, a 2016 Heisman finalist, and tailbacks Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine.
And OU needs all that offense to stay afloat in the pass-happy Big 12. Saturday, Oklahoma State standout Mason Rudolph torched the Sooners secondary for 448 passing yards and five touchdowns. The Sooners allow 262.8 passing yards per game, No. 110 nationally, and rank No. 103 nationally in pass efficiency defense. With No. 8 TCU and senior Kenny Hill as well as West Virginia and pass-happy Will Grier left on the schedule, the OU secondary needs to improve. As it stands, Mayfield and the offense can't afford an off-game.
4. Clemson: Deep Passing
One year after breaking through for the program’s first national championship in 35 years, Clemson is in position to defend its title. Saturday’s wild 38-31 win at NC State improved the Tigers to 8-1, and they can win another ACC Atlantic Division title with a victory over struggling Florida State. An 11-1 record and another ACC title are well within reach.
Deshaun Watson left huge shoes for Kelly Bryant to fill, and while Bryant is not at the level of the Heisman Trophy runner-up (few are), he has won games in his own way. Bryant is Clemson’s leading rusher, with 548 yards and nine touchdowns, and has played through injuries with toughness and grit as a strong on-field leader.
However, he is not the passer that Watson was, particularly downfield. Since throwing for 316 yards in a 47-21 whipping of Louisville, Bryant has not thrown for more than 207 yards in a game. He is completing 65.2 percent of his passes on the season. Saturday, he completed 20 of 38 passes for 191 yards and one touchdown with an interception. On the season, Clemson averages 10.55 passing yards per completion, No. 118 nationally.
Deep threat Deon Cain is averaging 11.9 yards per catch after averaging 19.1 yards per reception as a sophomore. To repeat as national champions, the Tigers need to scare more people downfield, and that hasn’t happened much with Bryant running the offense.
3. Notre Dame: Passing Efficiency
One year after an ugly 4-8 campaign, Notre Dame looks like one of the nation's best teams. Entering Saturday's showdown with No. 7 Miami, the Fighting Irish are 8-1, with their only loss a 20-19 defeat to No. 2 Georgia, perhaps the best "quality loss" in the FBS. Tailback Josh Adams is a legit Heisman Trophy candidate with 1,191 rushing yards and nine touchdowns, and the defense is stingy, allowing 18.4 points per game, No. 17 nationally.
However, the passing game has been a consistent source of worry for the Irish offense. In his first year as a starter, dual-threat quarterback Brandon Wimbush has proved himself as a runner, rushing for 639 yards and 13 touchdowns. But his passing leaves a little to be desired. Wimbush is completing 51.3 percent of his passes for 1,287 yards with 11 touchdowns against two interceptions. His 280 yards in a 48-37 win over Wake Forest was a season high, but he completed just 15 of 30 passes.
Notre Dame ranks No. 108 nationally in passing yards and No. 103 in pass efficiency. If the Irish are forced to lean on Wimbush to win a big game, their playoff hopes could be in trouble.
2. Georgia: Offensive Balance
In Kirby Smart’s second season, Georgia has emerged as one of the nation’s top all-around teams. The Bulldogs are 9-0 and have already clinched the SEC East championship before Saturday’s trip to No. 10 Auburn. They’re in excellent position to claim a College Football Playoff berth and have one of the FBS’ top rushing attacks with seniors Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, averaging 279.3 rushing yards per game, No. 8 nationally. A nasty defense allows just 11.7 points per game, No. 3 nationally.
Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm seized the job from sophomore Jacob Eason and has run the offense well. However, Georgia has some serious offensive imbalance. The Bulldogs average 166.3 passing yards per game, No. 112 nationally. If needed, can Fromm be counted upon to win a game with his arm? Georgia has barely tried. The Dawgs run a lot of run-pass option, which gives Fromm the ability to choose between run and pass at the line of scrimmage. He has only three games with more than 15 passing attempts and only one game with more than 201 passing yards, a 326-yard effort in a 53-28 win over Missouri.
The run game is working well, but Georgia would be well-served if Fromm aired the ball out more and gave the offense some balance.
1. Alabama: Linebacker Depth
It’s hard to find a weakness with Alabama. The Crimson Tide are the nation’s most complete team and a strong bet to make the College Football Playoff for the fourth time in as many seasons. Nick Saban’s program averages 40.9 points per game, No. 9 nationally, and allows just 9.8 points per game, No. 1 nationally. They have a strong run game and quarterback Jalen Hurts is a highly effective offensive leader.
If you’re looking for cracks in the Tide’s machine, however, it’s worth examining the middle of the defense. In the opener against Florida State, Alabama lost a pair of linebackers, starter Christian Miller and key reserve Terrell Lewis, to season-ending injuries. And in Saturday’s 24-10 win over LSU, the Tide absorbed two more brutal blows to the linebacker group.
Senior Shaun Dion Hamilton, a Butkus Award semifinalist, suffered a season-ending broken kneecap, per Matt Zenitz of AL.com. And talented sophomore Mack Wilson also suffered a season-ending foot injury. Both had surgery Sunday.
Their losses will seriously test linebacker depth. Alabama still has senior Rashaan Evans, one of the SEC’s top linebackers, but junior Keith Holcombe and freshman Dylan Moses will be relied on more heavily. With Auburn, a potential SEC title matchup with Georgia and the College Football Playoff ahead, this could be one weakness that opposing offenses seek to exploit.