Every B/R Top 10 College Football Team's Biggest Weakness
Week 4 of the 2020 college football season provided a vivid reminder that even the supposedly best teams have fatal flaws.
Oklahoma lost to Kansas State because of a weak secondary and an inexperienced quarterback who made a couple of brutal mistakes. Identical story for LSU in its loss to Mississippi State. And while Texas survived against Texas Tech, it needed a frantic fourth-quarter comeback to overcome allowing 56 points on defense.
All three of those teams would have been in the Top 10 of our updated Top 25 this week had it not been for those disappointing performances. Instead, they fell by the wayside, and there are several new teams who look like College Football Playoff contenders.
We'll see how long these top teams can avoid having their biggest weaknesses exposed and, more importantly, whether they can still manage to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat when things do start to fall apart.
10. Penn State Nittany Lions: Defending the Pass
As far as scoring defense is concerned, Penn State was one of the best in the country last year. Prior to the high-scoring Cotton Bowl victory over Memphis (53-39), the Nittany Lions held opponents to 14.1 points per game.
But the secondary could have been a lot better.
Penn State allowed 251.5 passing yards per game, which ranked 100th nationally. And that team lost a lot of important starters.
Linebackers Jan Johnson and Cam Brown both graduated, and then Micah Parsons—a surefire first-round pick in the 2021 NFL draft—opted out of this season, leaving Penn State to completely rebuild the middle of its defense. It also lost star pass-rusher Yetur Gross-Matos and a starter at both cornerback (John Reid) and safety (Garrett Taylor) to the NFL.
Not exactly an ideal recipe for improving the defense, and that new-look unit will immediately be put to the test.
When the Big Ten finally takes the field in late October, Penn State opens with a road game against Indiana, which had 371 passing yards against PSU last year (albeit with a quarterback, Peyton Ramsey, who is now at Northwestern). One week after that, Lamont Wade and Co. need to try to slow down Justin Fields and Ohio State.
9. Mississippi State Bulldogs: Defending the Pass
Yes, we're going with the same weakness for back-to-back teams, but it is a particularly troubling issue for Mississippi State, given how great it was in this department just two years ago.
In 2018, the Bulldogs almost led the nation in defensive passer efficiency rating. Their score was 101.47, just barely behind No. 1 Miami at 101.39. No opponent managed more than 245 passing yards against them, and it wasn't until the Outback Bowl loss to Iowa that they allowed multiple passing touchdowns in a game. Heck, Mississippi State is one of the biggest reasons Tua Tagovailoa didn't win the Heisman that year, as he was held to 164 yards, one touchdown and one interception in a mid-November game against Mississippi State.
Last year was a different story. One season after holding everyone below 246 passing yards, the Bulldogs allowed 246.8 yards on average. Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Louisville all picked this secondary to pieces, and giving up 345 yards and three touchdowns in the season opener against an LSU offense that had to replace almost every starter from last year wasn't a promising start.
The good news is that Mike Leach's teams almost always get more passing yards than they allow, and K.J. Costello's 623 yards against LSU more than made up for the defensive lapses.
But they'll need to get that passing defense under control if they expect to consistently win games. Even Feleipe Franks and Arkansas could pose something of a threat next weekend if receivers are allowed to roam free in the secondary.
8. Auburn Tigers: Run Game
No surprise whatsoever that Auburn struggled to run the ball in its opener against Kentucky. Not only do the Wildcats have a solid defense, but the Tigers had to replace all five of their primary offensive linemen and their leading rusher from last season.
Shaun Shivers, D.J. Williams and Tank Bigsby each received at least half a dozen carries, but no member of the backfield even managed 30 rushing yards. The only Tiger to eclipse that mark was quarterback Bo Nix, who had 34 of the team's 91 rushing yards.
Last year, Auburn went 9-0 when rushing for more than 130 yards, but it was 0-4 when held to or below that mark. So, actually getting the 29-13 victory in spite of that inability to run the ball was impressive.
But that margin of victory is not indicative of how the game went. Kentucky outgained Auburn both through the air and on the ground. The Wildcats just stalled out repeatedly and gave the game away with three turnovers. (Auburn had zero giveaways.)
Before long, the lack of a rushing attack is bound to become an issue for Auburn—very likely this coming weekend at Georgia. The Bulldogs were one of the teams that shut down the Auburn run game last year, limiting the Tigers to 84 yards in a 21-14, SEC East-clinching victory. There's a good chance Auburn doesn't even that 84-yard mark this year.
7. Miami Hurricanes: Chunk Gains Allowed on Rushing Plays
Miami's offense is outstanding, the pass rush has been swarming and the famous turnover chain has already made six appearances in three games. Not much to complain about here, particularly in the aftermath of a 52-10 drubbing of woeful Florida State.
But one clear area with room for improvement is the rush defense.
The overall numbers (146.7 yards per game, 4.0 yards per carry, two touchdowns allowed) don't look bad, in large part because they've avoided the "home run" plays. The longest rush of the season against Miami's defense is 24 yards.
However, they have already given up 20 runs of 10 or more yards, which is bound to be an issue on Oct. 10 against Clemson and at the end of the regular season against North Carolina.
Louisville star running back Javian Hawkins maxed out at a 19-yard gain in Week 3 against Miami, but he still finished with 164 yards, finding his way into the second level of the defense time and again. By my count, 15 of his 27 carries resulted in a gain of at least five yards.
And for as awful as Florida State and its offensive line looked Saturday night, the Seminoles still had five different players break out at least one 10-yard carry and finished the game with 151 rushing yards.
As has been their M.O. since first hiring Manny Diaz as the defensive coordinator in 2016, the Hurricanes do somewhat make up for it with quite a few tackles for loss. They have ranked in the top five in the nation in tackles for loss per game in each of the past four seasons, and 31 such tackles through three games is quite the hot start.
It's a gift and a curse, though, because their aggressiveness in getting to the backfield usually leaves gaping holes in the middle of the defense for ball-carriers who are able to evade that first wave.
6. Notre Dame Fighting Irish: Still Searching for Go-To Receiver(s)
Aside from quarterback Ian Book, Notre Dame had to replace all of its household names on offense from last season. Running back Tony Jones Jr., tight end Cole Kmet and wide receivers Chris Finke and Chase Claypool are all out of the picture after combining for 30 touchdowns and just under 3,000 total yards from scrimmage in 2019.
Thus far, the rushing situation is no worse for wear. Kyren Williams, C'Bo Flemister and Chris Tyree are each averaging at least 6.0 yards per carry for a team that put up 459 yards and eight rushing touchdowns against Duke and South Florida.
Sooner rather than later, though, the Fighting Irish need to figure out what they're working with in the receiving game. Because in addition to leading the team in rushing yards, Williams (four receptions for 103 yards) is currently leading the team in receiving.
Tight end Tommy Tremble (eight receptions for 98 yards) is the only player who has made more than four receptions and the only non-RB with more than 44 receiving yards. We expected Braden Lenzy to be a huge breakout candidate in this offense, but he missed the opener against Duke and wasn't much of a factor against South Florida with 37 yards on four touches.
Had the Week 4 game against Wake Forest not been postponed to mid-December, that would have been a great opportunity to work out any kinks in the passing game, considering the Demon Deacons allowed over 1,000 yards and 82 points in their first two games. Perhaps the Oct. 10 game against Florida State will serve the same purpose, though.
5. Georgia Bulldogs: Quarterback Play
If you had predicted a month ago that Georgia would be facing early questions at quarterback, the assumption would have been that the dilemma was choosing which of the quality options was best suited to lead the Bulldogs to the College Football Playoff.
At the beginning of September, Georgia's QB depth chart probably looked something like this:
1. Jamie Newman (Wake Forest transfer) OR JT Daniels (USC transfer)
3. D'Wan Mathis (redshirt freshman)
4. Stetson Bennett (junior)
5. Carson Beck (true freshman)
But then Newman opted out of the 2020 season on Sept. 2, and Daniels still hasn't been medically cleared to return from the torn ACL he suffered last September.
Thus, the Bulldogs opened the season against Arkansas with Mathis behind center, which only last 20 minutes. They didn't score a single point on their first six possessions against a defense that allowed 39.9 points per SEC game last season, so Kirby Smart pulled the emergency rip cord and put Bennett in the game.
And to his credit, Bennett did a fine, Jake Fromm-like job of managing the game—two touchdowns, no interceptions, 7.3 yards per attempt. It took a few drives for him to get rolling, but once Georgia finally scored a touchdown midway through the third quarter, the blowout was underway.
Is Bennett the guy now? After one respectable half against the team just about everyone assumes will finish in dead last in the SEC West? Or do they give Mathis another shot against an upcoming murderers' row? (Georgia's next five are against Auburn, Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky and Florida.) Does Daniels immediately get the starting gig if he's cleared before next Saturday? Also, what the heck was up with this backfield averaging just 2.9 yards per attempt against Arkansas?
Georgia's offense has significantly more questions than answers at this point, and it is already out of time to figure out what works best.
4. Florida Gators: Defense Isn't What It Used to Be
The Kyle Trask-to-Kyle Pitts connection is already a confirmed blast-and-a-half. The ball that Pitts caught for a touchdown with five seconds remaining before halftime against Ole Miss was easily one of the most impressive things that happened in Week 4. Coming right back out after the intermission with a 71-yard touchdown strike to Pitts was another example of how unstoppable this offense can be when it's clicking.
What the heck was that defensive effort, though?
New Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin threw some serious trickery at the Gators. Quarterbacks Matt Corral and John Rhys Plumlee were both on the field for most of the Rebels' first drive. They also broke out a slick double pass for a 45-yard gain before the end of the first quarter.
But even the straightforward stuff was an issue for a Florida defense that was one of the best in the nation last season.
The Rebels had four passing plays that went for at least 45 yards, including Elijah Moore making receptions of 57 and 51 yards on back-to-back offensive plays. Florida only allowed three passing plays of 50 or more yards in the entire 2019 season, so two in two plays is a more than a bit concerning.
By midway through the third quarter, Ole Miss had 413 yards of total offense. The only team to top 410 against the Gators last year was LSU's Joe Burrow-led freight train going for 511 yards. But even that juggernaut didn't reach 410 yards until the fourth quarter.
Ole Miss ended up with 613 total yards—the first team to eclipse 600 yards against Florida since Alabama went for 672 yards in 2014.
Florida won the game without much trouble, but there are much, much better defenses in the SEC than the one Ole Miss brought to the table. If the Gators defense continues to give up chunk gains at this rate, the offense won't always be able to bail them out.
3. Ohio State Buckeyes: New Faces in the Secondary
It's possible that Ohio State's secondary will be better than OK despite losing Damon Arnette, Jordan Fuller and Jeff Okudah to the NFL.
After the Buckeyes lost Marshon Lattimore, Malik Hooker and Gareon Conley as first-round picks in April 2017, they still held opponents below 200 passing yards per game the following fall. Yes, it was a slight, understandable step backward from the dominance they displayed in 2016 with those stars at their disposal, but it's not like they went from outstanding to abysmal. They were still respectable, and we expect that to be the case this year.
If there's going to be an area where Ohio State struggles, though, pass defense is the most likely culprit.
Getting Shaun Wade to opt back in was a massive win for this secondary. But even with that star cornerback coming back, there's a lot of uncertainty back there. The other three projected starters—Cameron Brown, Josh Proctor and Sevyn Banks—have a combined total of 41 career tackles, two interceptions and six passes defended.
But of course, this is Ohio State, where stud recruits back up stud recruits. Arnette and Fuller were equally unproven when they slid into starting roles as sophomores and immediately thrived. If Proctor is able to cover the middle of the field 75 percent as well as Fuller did, this defense will be solid.
As with Penn State, though, that secondary can't exactly ease its way into midseason form. The Buckeyes will face Nebraska and Penn State to open the season, and Adrian Martinez and Sean Clifford are two of the best quarterbacks in the Big Ten not named Justin Fields.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide: Depth on Offense
It would be beyond difficult to argue that there's a better RB-WR-WR trio currently playing college football than Alabama's Najee Harris, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. Each of those three stud upperclassmen had more than 1,200 all-purpose yards last season, and they combined for 317 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns in the season-opening win over Missouri.
But what else do the Crimson Tide have?
(You know, aside from highly touted recruits with a lot of potential who simply haven't gotten a chance to shine yet.)
Trey Sanders was one of those high school phenoms, rated by 247 Sports Composite as the No. 6 overall recruit in last year's class. But after missing all of last season with an injury, he had nine carries and one reception for a combined total of negative-one yard against Missouri. Not the most promising start.
And in the passing game, players not named Waddle, Smith or Harris made five receptions for 72 yards. John Metchie III made two of those catches for 42 yards and seems to be the No. 3 wide receiver, as was expected. But he's nowhere near the deep threat that Alabama had at No. 3 on the depth chart for the past two seasons. Neither is the No. 4 WR, whoever that may be.
As long as the three stars avoid injury (and COVID-19), Alabama should be sensational on offense. (The defense was also impressive in the opener prior to a couple of garbage-time touchdowns.) But it's fair to at least wonder about the "next man up" situation for the Crimson Tide. Because at some point, they're going to need a Slade Bolden or a Xavier Williams to step up in some capacity.
1. Clemson Tigers: Forcing Turnovers
Hard to find fault in a team that outscored its first two opponents 86-3 in the first three quarters of those games; a team whose Heisman-favorite quarterback has accounted for seven touchdowns and just seven incompletions.
But one curiosity from those blowouts was the grand total of just one turnover forced.
Clemson had one of the best ball-hawking defenses in the country last season, racking up 19 interceptions and 11 fumble recoveries. And in each of the past two seasons, the Tigers forced multiple turnovers in each of their first two games.
That opportunistic defense hasn't been there yet, though.
It's probably just going to take some time. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables is arguably the best in the business, but losing Isaiah Simmons, Tanner Muse, A.J. Terrell and K'Von Wallace would be an early challenge for any defense.
Still, it bears mentioning that "no turnovers" was a theme in two of Clemson's three biggest tests last season. They had zero in the national championship loss to LSU, as well as zero in the close call against North Carolina. If they don't start picking off some passes, games against Miami (Oct. 10) and Notre Dame (Nov. 7) could be a major problem.