Every College Football Playoff Contender's Biggest Flaw

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJuly 3, 2019

Every College Football Playoff Contender's Biggest Flaw

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    Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney
    Clemson head coach Dabo SwinneyDavid J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Alabama and Clemson should square off in the College Football Playoff for a fifth consecutive season, but potential defensive issues could keep both heavy favorites from winning it all.

    They're not alone, though. All of the teams with legitimate aspirations of being chosen by the CFP selection committee have at least one major red flag that could derail their best-laid plans.

    Both Big 12 contenders (Oklahoma and Texas) need to address glaring concerns on defense. Both Big Ten contenders (Michigan and Ohio State) have even larger question marks on offense. And the special teams for LSU and Oregon might be the furthest thing from special.

    These issues won't bury all of these squads. Somehow, some way, four teams are going to the College Football Playoff. But these are the hurdles the top contenders will need to clear to get there.

                     

    Teams are listed in ascending order of likelihood of winning the national championship, per the consensus title odds on OddsShark as of July 1.

10. Florida Gators

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    Van Jefferson
    Van JeffersonScott Halleran/Getty Images

    Championship Odds: 33.7-1

    Biggest Flaw: Inexperienced Offensive Line

    Feleipe Franks made massive strides at quarterback in Dan Mullen's first year as the Florida Gators head coach. Franks returns, as does what feels like every Gator who caught one of his passes last season.

    And even though the defense lost Jachai Polite, Vosean Joseph and Chauncey Gardner-Johnson to the NFL, most of the unit's starters are back for another year.

    In other words, there are plenty of reasons to believe this team can improve upon what was already an impressive 10-win campaign.

    There is one glaring concern, though: offensive line.

    The Gators lost Jawaan Taylor, Martez Ivey, Fred Johnson and Tyler Jordana quartet of big men that registered a combined total of 51 out of 52 possible starts last season. Thus, aside from presumed starting center Nick Buchanan, Florida has a great big question mark in the offensive trenches.

    Improved blocking was quietly one of the biggest reasons Florida's offense improved so much from 2017 to 2018. During that disastrous 4-7 campaign, the Gators allowed 3.36 sacks per game, good for 124th in the nation. They chopped that all the way down to 1.39 this past season. They also did a much better job of opening lanes for Lamical Perine, turning him into one of the better yards-per-carry running backs in the SEC.

    It's great to have all those skill-position players back, but they'll only be as good as their blockers. If this new offensive line isn't in tip-top shape by the time that four-game gauntlet of Auburn, LSU, South Carolina and Georgia rolls around starting Oct. 5, Florida's dream season could turn into a nightmare in a hurry.  

8. (tie) LSU Tigers

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    Cole Tracy and Ed Orgeron
    Cole Tracy and Ed OrgeronKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Championship Odds: 26-1

    Biggest Flaw: Special Teams

    The Tigers have an excellent punter in Zach Von Rosenberg. The rising junior averaged 45.7 yards per punt last season, which was the seventh-highest mark in the nation.

    And when they don't need a booming punt, there's also Josh Growden to handle the coffin-corner duties. There aren't many punting platoons in college football, but LSU clearly has one of the best.

    The Tigers also have a great leg for kickoffs in Avery Atkins. LSU allowed the fewest kickoff return yards of any team last season (126) thanks to Atkins' ability to mash 71 of 79 kickoffs for touchbacks as a freshman.

    The other special teams units are much less of a sure thing for Ed Orgeron and Co.

    Cole Tracy was one of the best kickers in the country last year, making all 42 of his extra-point attempts and 29 out of 33 field goalsincluding the game-winner at Auburn. But he is out of the picture, leaving true freshman Cade York as the likely place-kicker right away. At least York is the fourth-best kicker in this year's recruiting class, according to 247Sports.

    LSU doesn't have any return specialists, either. The Tigers had a grand total of 99 punt-return yards in 2018 and only had three kickoff returns that went for 30 or more yards. In both departments, those marks were worse than at least half the country.

    The kicking is obviously the bigger concern, though. Granted, Alabama has shown in recent years that you can vie for a title without a superb kicking game, but those Crimson Tide teams were more dominant in other areas than LSU figures to be. And there is no margin for error in the SEC West.

8. (tie) Oregon Ducks

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    Dillon Mitchell
    Dillon MitchellChris Pietsch/Associated Press

    Championship Odds: 26-1

    Biggest Flaw: Field Goals and Deep Passes

    Oregon didn't lose many key players from last season, but Dillon Mitchell was a big one. He led the Pac-12 in receiving yards (1,184) and had nearly three times as many yards as the next-closest Duck.

    Mitchell was responsible for more than 30 percent of the team's targets, receptions and receiving touchdowns. Without a close runner-up, he was Justin Herbert's favorite target.

    Moreover, Mitchell was the go-to guy for deep balls. He had 20 receptions that went for at least 20 yards. No. 2 on that list was tight end Jacob Breeland with eight catches of that distance.

    The Ducks brought in Penn State graduate transfer Juwan Johnson to hopefully help fill that hole, and Herbert is more than talented enough to take a Brenden Schooler or Johnny Johnson III from a background role and turn him into an All-Pac-12 wide receiver. Even if the Ducks don't have a receiver as singularly dominant as Mitchell, they should still be in great shape on offense.

    What Herbert can't help is a woeful kicking unit.

    Oregon only made six field goals (out of 11 attempts) in the entire 2018 campaign, the longest of which was a 39-yarder. It was the third consecutive season in which the Ducks connected on fewer than 10 three-pointers, and it's anybody's guess whether they'll stick with Adam Stack or hand the reins to true freshman Camden Lewis.

7. Texas Longhorns

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    Caden Sterns
    Caden SternsTim Warner/Getty Images

    Championship Odds: 21.7-1

    Biggest Flaw: Secondary

    To consistently succeed in the Big 12, you have to hold your own against above-average passing attacks.

    To put it lightly, Texas did not do that last year.

    In five of six regular-season games against opponents who ranked in the top 50 in passer-efficiency rating, the Longhorns allowed at least a 66.7 completion percentage, 310 passing yards, three passing touchdowns and 34 points. They lost three of those games and needed tie-breaking scores in the final 30 seconds to win the other two.

    The good news is that Oklahoma's Kyler Murray, West Virginia's Will Grier and Oklahoma State's Taylor Cornelius are all gone. It still won't be easy to navigate the Big 12 schedule, but in Sam Ehlinger, Texas probably has the best quarterback in the conference. That should help the secondary hide some of its deficiencies.

    The bad news is the defensive backfield might be even more porous in 2019 after it lost Kris Boyd and Davante Davisthe two team leaders in pass breakups.

    Head coach Tom Herman bent over backward to try to address this problem during the 2018 recruiting cycle. The Longhorns signed three of the top six safeties in that class, as well as three of the top 15 cornerbacks. Both Caden Sterns and B.J. Foster immediately thrived as true freshmen, but the Longhorns are going to need guys like Anthony Cook, Jalen Green and D'Shawn Jamison to deliver on that potential sooner rather than later.

6. Oklahoma Sooners

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    Kenneth Murray
    Kenneth MurrayBrett Deering/Getty Images

    Championship Odds: 14.3-1

    Biggest Flaw: The Entire Defense

    Oklahoma led the nation in scoring last season at a rate of 48.4 points per game. It was the Sooners' fourth consecutive year of averaging at least 43.5 points.

    And despite the departures of Kyler Murray, Marquise Brown and Rodney Anderson, and four offensive linemen taken in the first four rounds of the 2019 NFL draft, the expectation is that new quarterback Jalen Hurts and head coach Lincoln Riley will lead this offense to yet another prolific campaign.

    Will the defense hold up its end of the bargain for a change?

    The Sooners allowed 33.3 points per game in 2018, including at least 40 points in five of their last six contests. They fired defensive coordinator Mike Stoops in early October, but it didn't help. In the College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Alabama, they allowed touchdown drives of at least 48 yards on each of the Crimson Tide's first four possessions, digging themselves an insurmountable 28-0 hole.

    The hope is the defense will be stingier under new coordinator Alex Grinch.

    Grinch worked some magic as the DC at Washington State from 2015 to 2017. The Cougars had ranked 95th or worse in points allowed per game in each season from 2007 to 2014 and had given up 38.6 points per game the year before hiring Grinch. He immediately got them down to 27.7 in his first season, and they ranked in the top 60 in points allowed in each of his final two seasons.

    No one is expecting the Sooners D to start pitching shutouts, but if Grinch can bring them from atrocious to slightly below average, that might be enough for this offense to win a title.

5. Michigan Wolverines

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    Shea Patterson
    Shea PattersonJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    Championship Odds: 14.2-1

    Biggest Flaw: Limited Explosiveness on Offense

    Even if Michigan had beaten Ohio State last year and reached the College Football Playoff, most of the experts around the nation didn't seem to believe the Wolverines had a legitimate shot at toppling Alabama and/or Clemson. The main reason is that this offense wasn't operating at the same level as the true contenders.

    Oklahoma (111), Clemson (104) and Alabama (101) led the nation in plays that went for at least 20 yards. Ohio State's slant-heavy pass game ranked third in plays of at least 10 yards with 272 of them. For each of those four offenses, it felt like they'd score on every possession, making almost any comeback a possibility.

    And then there's Michigan, which languished close to the national average with only 175 plays of 10 or more yards and 61 that went for at least 20 yards. The Wolverines prioritized establishing the run and never had much quick-strike potential—this despite having a quarterback (Shea Patterson) who threw for at least 320 yards in seven of his 10 games with Ole Miss and the highest-rated wide receiver in the 2017 recruiting class (Donovan Peoples-Jones).

    Patterson was solid and DPJ did have a bit of a breakout year, but it wasn't anything close to the high-octane offense we started dreaming about from the moment Patterson transferred to Michigan.

    The good news is Michigan actually has an offensive coordinator this season. Rather than splitting up the play-calling duties between the various assistant coaches for a second straight year, Jim Harbaugh brought in Josh Gattis from Alabama to infuse this offense with some of the magic the Crimson Tide had last year.

    We'll see if things change for the better, though. After all, this will be Gattis' first season as the lone offensive coordinator for a team.

4. Ohio State Buckeyes

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    Justin Fields
    Justin FieldsPaul Vernon/Associated Press

    Championship Odds: 9.3-1

    Biggest Flaw: Inexperience at Quarterback

    The funny thing is we had the same concern about Ohio State last season. Dwayne Haskins had some moments of brilliance as a redshirt freshman in 2017, but he was far from a sure thing to fill the full-time gig J.T. Barrett was leaving. Haskins ended up being incredible. But his success doesn't necessarily mean Justin Fields will flourish from a similar starting point.

    Moreover, if Haskins hadn't panned out, at least Ohio State had an excellent Plan B in Tate Martell. The Buckeyes don't have that luxury this year, as Martell transferred to Miami shortly after Fields arrived in Columbus. Instead, the Buckeyes' de facto backup plan in 2019 will be Chris Chugunov, who had a career 47.4 completion percentage in limited playing time with West Virginia in 2016 and 2017.

    And at least Haskins had been in the Ohio State program for two years before he took the reins. He was supremely talented, but he also knew the ins and outs of that offense. As a transfer from Georgia, Fields has only been around for a few months. He's also entering a program in at least a little bit of flux as Ryan Day supplants Urban Meyer as the head coach.

    All that said, provided he stays healthy, Fields should be outstanding. He was the No. 2 overall recruit in last year's class and is one of the most highly touted dual-threat quarterbacks ever. He should be the latest stud at a program where the likes of Barrett, Braxton Miller, Cardale Jones, Terrelle Pryor and Troy Smith have thrived in recent years.

    But the lack of both experience and depth at quarterback is still a concern for the Buckeyes. If it takes Fields some time to reach his potential or if he misses time to an injury, Ohio State will be in trouble.

3. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Tae Crowder
    Tae CrowderJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    Championship Odds: 7.2-1

    Biggest Flaw: Backfield Penetration

    To win the national championship, Georgia is possibly going to need to defeat Alabama in the SEC title game before then beating both Alabama and Clemson in the College Football Playoff. Even for what should be the third-best team in the nation, that is a nearly impossible task.

    It becomes even more unlikely once you factor in Georgia's complete lack of backfield penetration.

    If you want to win three games against Tua Tagovailoa and Trevor Lawrence, you've got to be able to get in their faces, disrupt their rhythm and make them think twice about every decision. But Georgia does not have a single returning player who recorded more than 2.0 sacks or 6.0 tackles for loss in 2018. Thus, that probably won't happen.

    The Bulldogs averaged 4.64 tackles for loss per game last season, which ranked 116th nationally. They were also tied for 100th in sacks per game at a rate of 1.71. From that already lackluster unit, they lost three of their four most disruptive players in D'Andre Walker, Jonathan Ledbetter and Natrez Patrick.

    Walker was the biggest blow, as he had 13 sacks, 24.5 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles over the past two seasons. Even though the team's numbers were weak as a whole, at least Walker was making opposing offensive coordinators lose sleep.

    With so much talent on this roster, it's almost inevitable that someone will emerge as a new star and a potential All-American. Both Quay Walker and Azeez Ojulari are candidates to fill that role. If the Bulldogs can't pull another Roquan Smith type of one-man force of nature out of their sleeve, though, they'll fall short of winning it all.

1. (tie) Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Patrick Surtain II
    Patrick Surtain IIJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    Championship Odds: 2.3-1

    Biggest Flaw: Secondary Play

    Early growing pains in the secondary were to be expected for the Crimson Tide last year. Every noteworthy defensive back from the 2017 season either graduated or left early for the NFL, leaving Alabama with a tabula rasa in what is usually one of its (many) areas of dominance.

    The problem is that secondary didn't improve with age. In fact, it got worse as the season progressed.

    Twelve of Alabama's 14 interceptions came in its first seven games, meaning there were only two in the final eight. After 11 contests, opponents were barely completing half of their pass attempts and averaging 169.5 passing yards and 1.1 touchdowns. Aside from one hiccup against Arkansas (233 yards, three touchdowns), what was supposed to be Alabama's Achilles' heel didn't look like one at all.

    However, in the SEC championship tilt against Georgia and the CFP games against Oklahoma and Clemson, Alabama allowed eight combined passing touchdowns with no interceptions and gave up at least 300 passing yards in each contest. That defense was especially atrocious in the national championship loss to Clemson, in which the Tigers had five receptions of more than 25 yards.

    Granted, Trevor Lawrence, Kyler Murray and Jake Fromm were three of the best quarterbacks in the country last season, but that's the caliber of opponent this secondary will need to stifle in January.

    If Patrick Surtain II and Co. don't make significant improvements...well, Alabama's offense will still outscore most opponents with room to spare. But that could be this team's downfall against Clemson for a second straight year.

1. (tie) Clemson Tigers

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    Isaiah Simmons
    Isaiah SimmonsChris Carlson/Associated Press

    Championship Odds: 2.3-1

    Biggest Flaw: Unknowns in the Defensive Front Seven

    It has been a while since the defensive line and linebacker corps were even question marks for Clemson, let alone potential glaring weaknesses. The Tigers have led the nation in tackles for loss in five of the past six seasons, and they have ranked top three in sacks in four consecutive years.

    After Clemson lost six of its seven startersincluding the entire D-linethings might be different in 2019. The Tigers have a few stone-cold studs in linebacker Isaiah Simmons and defensive end Xavier Thomas, but there's quite a bit of uncertainty beyond that dynamic duo.

    Can Jordan Williams and Nyles Pinckney even remotely replicate what Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins did in the trenches for the past several seasons? Can redshirt freshman Mike Jones Jr. and/or redshirt junior James Skalski be counted on to lock down the linebacker jobs previously held by Tre Lamar and Kendall Joseph? And how much of a factor will 2018 5-star DE K.J. Henry be after playing just 39 snaps in his first season?

    Much like Alabama and Georgia, Clemson isn't exactly hurting for options at its most likely weak point. The Tigers have 14 linemen/linebackers who were either 4-star or 5-star recruits. Hard to feel bad for a team that can fill out its entire two-deep with players that just about every program in the country desperately wanted to sign.

    Those recruiting stars don't guarantee anything, though, and Clemson now needs to rely on starters who barely saw the field last season. That might not be a major problem during ACC play, but the Tigers will need their normal allotment of backfield penetration once the CFP arrives.

                                      

    Kerry Miller covers college football and men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames. Recruit ratings courtesy of 247Sports' composite rankings.