Every B/R Top 10 College Football Team's Biggest Weakness

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistSeptember 23, 2019

Every B/R Top 10 College Football Team's Biggest Weakness

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    Richard Shiro/Associated Press

    Nobody's perfect. Not even the top 10 teams in Bleacher Report's Top 25 after Week 4's games concluded late Saturday night. 

    Yes, LSU, Oklahoma and Ohio State look flawless so far, but they still have some things to clean up. Sure, Alabama and Clemson have more talent than anybody in the country, but even last year's final teams standing have a few question marks at this point in the season.

    Georgia certainly wasn't perfect in Saturday night's home win over Notre Dame, and neither were the Irish. Texas already has a blemish against LSU on its record, and though Wisconsin is playing old-school, powerhouse football, the Badgers have things left to prove.

    So, where are the areas each member of the top 10 can improve?

    For some programs such as Clemson and Alabama, the questions arise at areas in which they expected to excel. Others like Oklahoma have lingering questions from last season.

    Let's take a look at college football's premier programs after four weeks of the season and see what needs work if they're going to make it all the way to the College Football Playoff—and perhaps beyond.

1. Clemson: Trevor Lawrence's Decision-Making

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    Mike Comer/Getty Images

    At this point in the season, it's not the end of the world if your biggest weakness is one of the things you thought would be a strength and you're still unbeaten (and relatively unchallenged).

    That's the story for the defending national champion Clemson Tigers.

    Sophomore quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who replaced Kelly Bryant as the starter a season ago and was a revelation for the Tigers, leading them to the title and getting better as the year went on, was one of the popular preseason picks for the Heisman Trophy.

    In 2018, he had 30 touchdowns and four interceptions. So far this year, he's already thrown five picks to go along with his seven touchdowns. 

    Lawrence still has weapons all around him, including two of the nation's top receivers in Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross. But for whatever reason, the numbers aren't there. His completion percentage is down, and he hasn't posted any electrifying games.

    Despite acknowledging that he's made some poor choices with the football so far, Lawrence didn't seem worried, per TigerNet.com's David Hood.

    "I think I'm the same guy I was," he said. "There have definitely been some bad decisions that I have made in games, and that's going to happen when playing quarterback."

    If Lawrence doesn't get things on track this season, Clemson won't win a title. He's got time to shake off the cobwebs, though. The Tigers don't have any ranked opponents remaining on their regular-season schedule, which leaves a whole lot of reps for the quarterback to regain his sea legs.

    Head coach Dabo Swinney and Co. just hope he's back to his '18 form in time for the big boys.

2. Alabama: Youth on Defense (Especially at Linebacker)

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    Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

    Alabama's explosive offense, led by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, has the firepower to outscore everybody it plays this year.

    It may have to.

    Injuries have ravaged head coach Nick Saban's defense so far, especially in the linebacking corps. Dylan Moses' season-ending injury in preseason camp was a devastating blow, as he was set to compete for some postseason awards.

    The worst part? Alabama was already dealing with a season-ending injury to expected starter Joshua McMillon. Terrell Lewis is battling some bumps and bruises, too, and sat out Saturday against Southern Miss. The Tide started four freshmen in their front seven against the Golden Eagles.

    Young linebackers Christian Harris and Shane Lee look like budding stars, but they're going to make their share of mistakes. They've got to learn quickly with SEC play about to heat up.

    Saban is stripping down the defensive scheme with the youngsters out there, and the talent is taking over. Those guys are responding.

    As the coach said after Saturday's Southern Miss game: "I think we played better today. We were simpler in terms of the plan and the adjustments that we wanted to make in the game, which I think helped the young players especially. But I thought the players did a pretty good job adjusting to a lot of the stuff, and some stuff we did not practice."

    Nobody is going to feel sorry for an Alabama team that's always going to have more talent than the opponent, but how will things shake out when LSU, Auburn, Texas A&M and others come calling?

    Will the young guys respond? They may, but that's certainly a concern for the Tide.

3. LSU: Rushing Attack

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    Patrick Dennis/Associated Press

    What kind of bizarro world are we living in right now?

    Not only does LSU have the most prolific passing offense in the SEC, but the Tigers are also just OK running the football. They're not statistically great defending the pass, but they've been lighting up opponents so much on the scoreboard that they've dealt with lots of passing.

    The real issue is whether the Tigers can find a dependable running back during SEC play.

    Saturday was a welcome sign as they piled up 181 yards on the ground against Vanderbilt, with Clyde Edwards-Helaire leading the way with 14 carries for 106 yards and a touchdown. The junior is without question the primary back right now, but he needs more games like the one he had against the Commodores.

    Entering that 66-38 win, Edwards-Helaire had just 182 rushing yards, so this was a healthy boost. Beyond him, LSU hasn't gotten what it wanted from a talented pair of freshmen.

    Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery Jr. were expected to provide a lift but combined for just 58 yards entering Saturday. They churned out 70 yards against Vandy, and Emery had 51 and a touchdown. If he gets going, the youngster has the type of explosion that could take LSU's offense to another level.

    Before Saturday's outburst, LSU was next to last in the SEC in rushing offense, which isn't something head coach Ed Orgeron will be happy about, even if quarterback Joe Burrow is shattering records left and right. In a heavyweight showdown with Texas earlier this year, the Tigers had just 102 yards on the ground.

    That has to improve.

    As is the case with a lot of these teams, LSU has weapons in its arsenal. It's just a matter of getting everybody going. 

4. Georgia: Pass-Catchers Wanted

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    Mike Stewart/Associated Press

    Georgia has one of the nation's top quarterbacks, but Jake Fromm has been somewhat limited due to the lack of an alpha wide receiver.

    The way head coach Kirby Smart has recruited—both in the high school ranks and in the transfer portal—there are plenty of talented and viable options. But the Bulldogs need somebody to emerge and say, "I'm the man to go to during crunch time."

    Saturday night's 23-17 win over Notre Dame at Sanford Stadium was the perfect example. Fromm threw for just 187 yards as UGA sputtered at times against a strong Irish defense that proved it can play with the elite programs.

    It was an encouraging sign that Miami graduate transfer Lawrence Cager grabbed five passes for 82 yards and a touchdown. He's a guy the Dawgs could really use if he emerges. The same goes for former California receiver Demetris Robertson, who caught four passes for 48 yards against the Irish.

    Neither of those players had made much noise entering the game, so posting quality numbers against a top-10 opponent is big.

    Then you've got dynamic freshman receivers George Pickens and Dominick Blaylock, both of whom are capable of being game-breaking players.

    Much like the youth on Alabama's defense, UGA has the talent on offense to break through. But if the Dawgs are going to be a championship-caliber team, they've got to find a go-to receiver (or two) and have some guys be more consistent performers.

    That could happen soon enough with Fromm at the helm.

5. Oklahoma: It's Still the Defense (but It's Better)

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Last year, the Oklahoma Sooners fielded one of the worst defenses in the nation, ranking 114th in total defense and 101st in scoring defense.

    So far this season, new coordinator Alex Grinch is in the process of making wholesale changes and sparking a massive turnaround.

    They just have a long way to go.

    Thankfully for the Sooners, they haven't missed an offensive beat going from Heisman Trophy winner Baker Mayfield two years ago to Heisman Trophy winner Kyler Murray last year to early-season Heisman front-runner Jalen Hurts. They're still explosive and can do a lot of scoring.

    But the defense is improving, holding a plus-one turnover advantage this year and going from allowing 408 yards to Houston in the opener to 348 against South Dakota to 311 against a hapless UCLA Bruins team.

    As Grinch said about the improvements: 

    "I think it's tangible. You can only do it on game day. You can talk about it. You can get a sense after a Tuesday in the spring kind of the progress. You can take practice seven in fall camp, just a random practice in fall camp—you can leave the facility at night and feel like you're making progress, but is it going to show on game day?"

    Per the Associated Press (h/t Fox Sports Southwest), OU is still No. 85 in pass efficiency defense and 85th in red-zone defense, but anything is better than the atrocity the Sooners put on the field last year. There's a better rotation of defenders, keeping guys fresh late in games, there's an aggression that wasn't there a season ago, and there is a belief they can actually get stops with games on the line.

    How will that play out against great offenses? In the high-flying Big 12, we'll find out the answer soon enough.

    Things are better, but by how much?

6. Ohio State: Lack of Measuring Sticks

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    When you're dominating everybody you play and doing so in record-breaking fashion, it's picking nits to talk about weaknesses. That's where Ohio State stands four weeks into the season.

    Ryan Day's first season as the full-time head coach is going swimmingly so far, and the Justin Fields experience is working out fine. The quarterback is proving to be special. 

    The running backs are much better than a season ago, the Buckeyes can hit you with a ton of different receiving weapons, and the pass rush is one of the best in the nation with Chase Young leading the way.

    I guess you could say the secondary has been just so-so. Entering Saturday's 76-5 win over Miami (Ohio), OSU was ninth in the conference, allowing more than 195 passing yards per game. But the Redhawks had just 60 passing yards, so the Buckeyes look to be rectifying that situation.

    Opponents have been so far behind that they've taken to the air. Also, the Buckeyes have played a lot of players on both sides of the ball, so it's not like the starting secondary is getting torched.

    The real weakness has been the schedule. Cincinnati is a pretty solid foe, sure, but Ohio State isn't getting challenged. Maybe it's just that good?

    Even Day doesn't know what to think yet.

    "Maybe midway through the season, we'll have a better idea," he said after the blowout victory over Miami (Ohio). "I do think that we're playing with a lot of passion, we're playing hard, we're playing tough. That's clear to see, but again, we go on the road and that's a big test next week. I think I'll have a better idea next week."

    The secondary will need to be sharp against quarterback Adrian Martinez and Nebraska. More than anything, though, it'll just be nice to see Ohio State play someone with a pulse.

7. Wisconsin: Place-Kicking

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Picking on kicker Collin Larsh? Well, that's harsh.

    Sorry, that was sitting there on a tee, ready to be knocked out of the park.

    Seriously, though, Wisconsin's football team is rolling right now after destroying Michigan in Camp Randall Stadium 35-14 on Saturday. Running back Jonathan Taylor is the best running back (if not player) in all of college football, and the defense looks as stout as some of the best Wisconsin teams in recent memory.

    Though quarterback Jack Coan may not be setting box scores on fire, he's playing within the framework of the game, has dynamic capabilities and is making every play head coach Paul Chryst sets in front of him. He can keep defenses honest with his athleticism, too.

    Despite a forgettable year last season when the Badgers were supposed to be good, Chryst has proved his coaching acumen, and he's doing so again this year.

    Really, the only weakness so far is the place-kicker. While Larsh has made all 20 of his extra-point attempts this season, he's just 1-of-4 on field-goal tries and missed another one against the Wolverines.

    The Badgers haven't needed those points yet during their hot start to the season, but plenty of games are won and lost with special teams in the rugged Big Ten where field position, trench warfare and battles of will reign supreme. Larsh has to be better.

    Last year, Rafael Gaglianone struggled on field goals, going 10-of-17. Larsh, a lifelong Badgers fan, beat out senior Zach Hintze in the preseason to replace him. But if he doesn't start connecting on field goals soon, look for Hintze to get another opportunity. 

8. Auburn: Bo Nix's Leash

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    Sam Craft/Associated Press

    Auburn waltzed into College Station on Saturday and came away with a pivotal 28-20 win over Texas A&M to remain unbeaten.

    The Tigers were basically an afterthought in the SEC West after a disappointing 2018 season, but their start to the year is as impressive as anybody's in the nation with quality wins over Oregon and A&M.

    One of the biggest buzzes of the young season revolves around true freshman starting quarterback Bo Nix, who picked Auburn up off the deck against the Ducks and led his team to a comeback.

    The question remains, though: Just how much better can Nix become this year? Will head coach Gus Malzahn take the restrictor plates off him and let him go, or are there going to be limitations?

    So far, you have to be impressed with the way the coach has handled his youngster and how Nix has responded. He has 645 passing yards, five touchdowns and two interceptions in a conservative scheme.

    New running backs coach Carnell "Cadillac" Williams has improved his stable to be good enough to carry AU's offense, and the defense is the catalyst of the entire team, punishing opponents along the line of scrimmage and controlling the game.

    Nix is doing fine, though Auburn is in the lower tier of passing offenses in the SEC. It won a slugfest against a good team Saturday with the freshman doing exactly what he's been doing.

    But the Tigers are going to be measured by how they perform against LSU, Georgia and Alabama, and Nix needs to do more in the downfield passing attack to beat those teams. He should be able to, but it's going to be a matter of how much Malzahn trusts him.

    Other areas are clicking for this team, and Nix has moxie you can't teach. It's going to be fun to watch him grow in the clutch.

9. Texas: Pass Defense

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    Eric Gay/Associated Press

    Head coach Tom Herman has recruited elite defensive back prospect after elite defensive back prospect during his tenure in Austin.

    It's time for results.

    Though the Longhorns have admittedly faced some dynamic passing attacks so far this year, they entered Saturday's game against Oklahoma State dead last in the Big 12 in passing defense, allowing a robust 330 passing yards per game, 105 more than next closest (also the Cowboys).

    They were considerably better against Oklahoma State in a 36-30 win, allowing 268 yards through the air by quarterback Spencer Sanders. But that still isn't good enough.

    The worst part about it for Herman and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando is the injuries that have decimated the depth. It got much, much worse Saturday. They already were without B.J. Foster and DeMarvion Overshown for the past two weeks.

    Against the Cowboys, other key members were hurt, as reported by 247Sports' Taylor Estes. Starting cornerback Jalen Green dislocated his shoulder and was going for a postgame MRI, according to Herman.

    Josh Thompson shifted to cornerback because of depth issues leading up to the game and suffered a fifth metatarsal fracture in the second half. Star sophomore safety Caden Sterns had 12 tackles and one for a loss, but he left with a knee injury and will also go for an MRI.

    Those could be crippling, season-turning blows for a Longhorns team that is talented on the back end but hasn't been able to put things together. Thankfully for Herman, he's recruited a bunch of capable players in the secondary, though nobody can overcome that many injuries.

    They need to get healthy in a hurry.

10. Notre Dame: 3rd-Down Efficiency

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    Mike Stewart/Associated Press

    After plodding along at times a season ago, Notre Dame has shown glimpses of a little offensive explosion this year. Quarterback Ian Book simply makes plays in big moments, and he is one of college football's biggest stars.

    Against Georgia on Saturday night, the Irish didn't win but put up a valiant fight in a 23-17 road loss despite entering as a two-touchdown underdog to the Bulldogs. The defense looked faster and more aggressive than it has in a while, and there were a lot of positive building blocks.

    But the Irish's third-down efficiency must improve.

    Case in point: Against a lowly New Mexico team in Week 2, the Irish were 1-of-10 on third-down conversions. That's inexplicable against a team that barely beat New Mexico State 55-52 on Saturday. Entering the game against Georgia, Notre Dame was No. 121 out of 130 teams in third-down efficiency.

    The ineptitude continued against UGA, as Book couldn't consistently sustain drives. The Irish finished 4-of-13 on third-down conversions, and that has to change if they're going to be a championship-caliber program and get back to the College Football Playoff.

    Youth at running back and an inconsistent offensive line have not helped matters, either.

    On Saturday night, the physicality was obvious, and Notre Dame looked like a team that could compete with anybody at the highest level. Georgia players agreed.

    "The level of competition was out there," UGA right tackle Isaiah Wilson told Sports Illustrated's Ross Dellenger. "That is a playoff team. They're a top-10 team. Talent is there."

    Maybe so, but the Irish have to sustain more drives and make more plays with possessions on the line. 

    All recruiting information is from 247Sports, and rankings are from the 247Sports composite. All stats are from CFBStats.com.

    Brad Shepard covers college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.

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