10 College Football Teams That Are One Piece Away from Making the CFB Playoff

Ian Wharton@NFLFilmStudyFeatured Columnist IVMarch 13, 2019

10 College Football Teams That Are One Piece Away from Making the CFB Playoff

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    The race for the College Football Playoff appears to be deep as the 2019 season nears. While we can expect the Clemson Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide to remain perched atop the polls until they lose, the rest of the field has more uncertainty. All it takes for a team to make a playoff push is for one unexpected star to emerge.

    Last year's other contestants, the Oklahoma Sooners and Notre Dame Fight Irish, will have their shots to repeat their playoff appearances if each can string together another great season. But we're going to focus on the teams that didn't do enough to earn the right to battle for the national championship.

    There are 10 squads that are one piece away from pushing their way into the playoff in 2019. Some may have an in-house answer ready to break out, while others will be doomed as they don't have the right talent on their rosters.

    We'll break down each missing piece, the candidates for each team to fill the void and the likelihood of it happening. These teams have been chosen because of their upside to make the playoff should they find their missing pieces. Squads that didn't make this list simply have too many holes to qualify.

Ohio State: Pass-Rusher

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    The Ohio State Buckeyes look to be in a surprisingly good spot entering 2019 despite losing an all-time head coach in Urban Meyer, the best quarterback in school history in Dwayne Haskins and star pass-rusher Nick Bosa. New head coach Ryan Day landed a small but terrific recruiting class this past cycle, and the acquisition of Georgia transfer Justin Fields at quarterback is a game-changer.

    Day's most pressing missing piece is on defense even though the unit is returning nine starters. He'll scheme an offense that maximizes the talent, and the program's depth along the offensive line will help the Buckeyes plug openings. But it's not as easy to cover for what was a mediocre unit in 2018.

    The Buckeyes need another pass-rusher to emerge in addition to Chase Young. Defensive tackle Dre'Mont Jones and Bosa—who both declared for April's NFL draft—accounted for 12.5 sacks, and Young was the only other individual to tally more than three sacks last season. That can't be the case in 2019.

    Incumbent tackle Robert Landers and end Jonathon Cooper aren't dynamic enough athletes to be reliable pass-rushers, so the Buckeyes will have to look toward unproven talents.

    Five-star recruit Zach Harrison already has NFL-level testing results, but if OSU has to rely on a true freshman, it doesn't look promising. Second-year ends Tyreke Smith and Tyler Friday will also get chances in a rotation, but it's hard to see a clear solution this season.

Texas Longhorns: Playmaking Linebacker

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    A bumpy 2017 season paid off with a breakout 2018 campaign for head coach Tom Herman and the Texas Longhorns. Expectations are high in 2019 after the program showed significant growth on the field and hauled in a great recruiting class (third nationally). The stars may be aligning for a championship run this season.

    Before getting too far, though, the Longhorns are returning just eight starters on defense. Losing their three leading tacklers from last year creates a void in the middle. Texas' one missing piece entering 2019 is a playmaking linebacker.

    Both Gary Johnson and Anthony Wheeler anchored a solid unit last year and racked up some terrific production. They combined for 177 tackles, 25 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. But their replacements are almost complete unknowns.

    Junior college transfer Caleb Johnson will be given priority to make an impact along with other recent recruits. The group of Johnson, Ayodele Adeoye, DeMarvion Overshown and early enrollees De'Gabriel Floyd and Marcus Tillman Jr. should produce a worthwhile rotation just based on their athleticism and football pedigrees.

    If one can emerge as a worthy heir as a playmaking linebacker, Texas will be a force in the Big 12. With so many talented options, it's a safe bet the Longhorns will find this missing piece.

Florida Gators: A Consistent Quarterback

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    Mike Stewart/Associated Press

    Florida Gators head coach Dan Mullen ripped off an impressive 10-3 season in 2018 that culminated in a Peach Bowl beatdown of Michigan. Expectations have jumped based on that bowl win, and it's easy to see why when the Gators play well. They're fast, physical and own the trenches against most foes.

    What cost the Gators was the lack of a consistent passing game, and that's their missing piece entering 2019. Mullen was able to land this job because of his ability to build a quarterback-friendly situation, but it remains to be seen whether Feleipe Franks has the skill set to be more than a middling quarterback.

    His stats jumped positively from 2017 to 2018, but his 58.4 percent completion rate is a byproduct of his greatest weaknesses. His long, looping throwing motion and his struggles to identify defensive coverages lead to broken drives and missed scoring opportunities. He must be better in his redshirt junior season.

    If Franks doesn't look more like an all-conference talent this year, Mullen may want to turn to Emory Jones. Jones offers a more explosive skill set that can elevate the Gators offense, but he may take time to refine and doesn't necessarily fill Florida's missing piece right away.

Michigan Wolverines: Pass-Rusher

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    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    The most difficult thing for a defense to replace is an impact pass-rusher. While the Michigan Wolverines have the benefit of having an elite defensive coordinator in Don Brown, who schemes up pressure as well as anyone, losing veteran playmakers Devin Bush, Rashan Gary and Chase Winovich hurts badly. The Wolverines must unearth an impact pass-rusher to fill their missing piece.

    Defensive lineman Kwity Paye was productive in limited playing time as a sophomore in 2018, and he's a candidate for a breakout season. The 6'4", 260-pounder fits Brown's multiple-look front and can hold his own as a penetrator. But there's another candidate who's even better.

    Senior linebacker Josh Uche morphed from a bench player in his first two seasons into a sack specialist. He logged only 13 tackles in 2018, but seven were sacks. He also had one sack among his three tackles in 2017 and two forced fumbles with three tackles in 2016. His production per snap is incredible.

    Along with Uche and Paye, Michigan's terrific 2019 recruiting class (eighth nationally) should make an impact. Five-star defensive tackle Chris Hinton and 4-star tackle Mazi Smith have potential to grow into huge roles as the season progresses.

    Things are looking good for the blue-blood Wolverines as their recruiting success looks to pay off with a quick reload.

Texas A&M: Running Back

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Texas A&M's leap in Jimbo Fisher's first season as head coach was promising for the future of the program. The Aggies finished 9-4, with two of the losses coming by no more than four points, and the hope is that Year 2 will shore up some of the sloppiness that cost them in tight battles last year.

    Before the Aggies can get that far, though, they must figure out which running back is capable of handling Trayveon Williams' load from last year.

    Williams was exquisite while carrying the offense, totaling 1,760 yards and 18 touchdowns on an absurd 6.5 yards-per-attempt average. While Kellen Mond took a jump in his own right, Williams' presence contributed significantly to his growth. The Aggies must give Mond another dynamic safety valve.

    Sophomore Jashaun Corbin is the most qualified answer for this missing piece. The 6'0", 191-pounder averaged 6.1 yards per touch as a freshman, totaling 431 yards and one touchdown from scrimmage. If the Aggies give him a similar workload as Williams, Corbin will need to reach the end zone at a higher rate.

    If Corbin has to split the role, watch for 4-star freshman Isaiah Spiller to emerge. At 6'0½", 201 pounds, he's a quick but strong back who can help create through contact.  

Washington State: Offensive Playmaker

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    Eastern Washington graduate transfer Gage Gubrud
    Eastern Washington graduate transfer Gage GubrudWilliam Mancebo/Getty Images

    Head coach Mike Leach's unexpected 2018 success with graduate transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew II helped Washington State nearly make the playoff. Minshew was terrific as the unit's playmaker, even earning Heisman Trophy buzz. But losing both Minshew and running back James Williams means the Cougars must find their next offensive playmaker.

    Minshew carried the offense with 662 passing attempts and an additional 58 rushes. While new graduate transfer Gage Gubrud showed immense talent in 2016-17 with Eastern Washington, it's not fair to expect him to translate his game as well as Minshew. If he does, then the Cougars don't need to look further. They're returning eight offensive starters.

    The other candidate to watch as the potential catalyst is Max Borghi. Though Leach is going to prioritize the passing game, Borghi's tremendously talented as both a runner and a receiver. His 5.9 yards-per-touch average and 12 touchdowns bode well for his ability to dominate in an increased role.

    The best and most likely solution to the Cougars' missing piece is a shared responsibility between Gubrud and Borghi. If either fails to produce at an all-conference level, Washington State won't be in the playoff race.

LSU Tigers: Running Back

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    The biggest issue for the LSU Tigers hasn't been finding high-end, elite talent or even competing with every team in the country. Landing Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow last year gave more stability and a higher floor for the program, but the Tigers' efforts to out-Alabama the Crimson Tide have fallen short. This team needs to become more dynamic and open the offense even more in 2019.

    To do that, LSU needs more from the running back position. It was a missing piece in 2018 even as Nick Brossette had over 1,000 yards along with 14 touchdowns. The lack of big-play explosiveness and receiving impact limited the looks the LSU offense could utilize.

    Help appears to be on the way at the right time. With a bolstered offensive line that has gained a year of experience, 5-star back John Emery Jr. looks like the next phenom. The explosive 5'11", 206-pound playmaker should translate quickly thanks to his build and the team's need for immediate contributions.

    The Tigers may have the best backfield they've boasted in years. Offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger will need to help the squad out by scheming easier big-play looks. His job should get simpler with Emery in the fold.

Utah Utes: Linebacker

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Utah Utes are a prominent sleeper in the College Football Playoff race. Returning 15 starters from a 9-5 team in a weak Pac-12 field, they have the profile of a breakout team in 2019. Their offense appears set, as they're returning key playmakers Zack Moss, Tyler Huntley and Jaylen Dixon.

    The defense, though, has room to improve, and the biggest missing piece is a player who can reliably force turnovers. The Utes lost linebackers Chase Hansen and Cody Barton, who combined for 231 tackles, 33.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks. Throw in the departures of their third- and fourth-leading tacklers, safeties Corrion Ballard and Marquise Blair, and they must somehow replace 361 tackles.

    The middle of the defense also stands out as a weakness.

    Head coach Kyle Whittingham has veteran depth in his secondary to help fill the safety void, but the linebacker situation could cost them a playoff spot. Assumed starters Francis Bernard and Donavan Thompson had just 68 combined tackles in 2018.

    If they don't offer the same backfield playmaking and coverage range as their predecessors, the Utes will sink. Even with a favorable schedule, that might be too big an ask. 

Wisconsin Badgers: Quarterback

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    Quarterback Alex Hornibrook announced his graduate transfer from Wisconsin to Florida State this past weekend, reinforcing the Badgers' hole at the most important position on the field. While Hornibrook was already a question mark, they must now turn to unknowns instead of a senior who experienced ups and downs.

    Even though the Badgers are also replacing four offensive linemen after the departure of Jon Dietzen, their offensive situation is still attractive for a quarterback. This program has been a model for developing blockers, and running back Jonathan Taylor is the nation's best back. The right quarterback can maximize him and receiver A.J. Taylor, who led the team in receiving yards as a junior last season. 

    Unfortunately, the options aren't too encouraging.

    Junior Jack Coan showed a little in his five 2018 appearances, but he also made it clear he wasn't ready to seize the opportunity. His 5.5 yards per attempt is a dreadful number, indicative of too many checkdowns and not enough dynamic plays. It's a full two yards per attempt below Hornibrook's mark.

    Giving the reins to 4-star freshman Graham Mertz may be the better option. The pro-style quarterback is a smooth passer with plus arm strength. While he'll have growing pains, he's an obvious talent, and the Badgers can afford to bring him along slowly thanks to their running game.

    Still, this situation isn't too promising while Iowa and Northwestern loom as primary competition in the Big Ten West.

Auburn Tigers: Explosive Quarterback

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    Jarrett Stidham's arrival from Baylor was supposed to be a game-changing development for Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn. But after lacking a legitimate passing threat for a few years, Malzahn's offense with Stidham was more of the same despite his physical traits. His development stalled, and Auburn is now searching for a more explosive quarterback.

    This could be a make-or-break season for Malzahn, so he faces extra pressure to get the decision correct. Incoming 5-star freshman Bo Nix is an undeniable force in the race for a starting job, but he'll have to beat out others who have been in the program for at least one year. Junior Malik Willis appears to be his top competition.

    Malzahn must prioritize developing whomever wins the starting job in order to see positive play in critical moments. Stidham struggled when he had to improvise, so exposing the new starter to more pressure before Auburn needs a big performance is important, especially because not one of the options has significant experience.

    Auburn isn't guaranteed to handle this properly. Even if it does, reliance on a freshman or junior with so few snaps is bound to cost them at some point in the SEC.