Every College Football Playoff Contender's Biggest Flaw
Perfection is impossible in college football. Even if a win-loss record says a team is undefeated, coaches would be the first people to identify room for improvement.
The positive side is that national title contenders can overcome those issues. In 2020, for example, Alabama had a questionable secondary—but the Crimson Tide atoned for that obstacle with a record-breaking offense.
As the 2021 season nears, the programs most likely to compete for trips to the College Football Playoff are still figuring out ways to manage those flaws. Some programs won't find the answers.
Aiming for objectivity, the following tiers and the list of contenders were based on DraftKings' team futures.
Tier 3 Contenders
Cincinnati Bearcats (+8000)
The unfortunate truth? Conference affiliation. Cincinnati never rose higher than seventh in the College Football Playoff rankings last year despite holding an undefeated record. That aside, though, Cincinnati's receiving corps lacks a dynamic player. There's plenty of depth, but nobody had 400 receiving yards in 2020. That can win the AAC, but it wouldn't be a national title-worthy offense.
Miami Hurricanes (+6000)
While the offensive line should be improved, Miami has major questions at linebacker. The starters may include two converted defensive backs (Keontra Smith and Gilbert Frierson) and a freshman (Corey Flagg Jr.). The absence of an elite pass-rusher is concerning too.
Michigan Wolverines (+8000)
Two trends have clouded Jim Harbaugh's tenure: Michigan has not won important games on the road nor beaten Ohio State. Through six seasons, the Wolverines are 2-8 in true road games against Top 25 teams and 0-5 opposite the Buckeyes. The 2021 slate features trips to Wisconsin and Penn State along with a season-ending clash against Ohio State in Ann Arbor.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish (+5000)
Entering the season, Notre Dame's weakness is either the quarterback or offensive line. Jack Coan had a nice career at Wisconsin as a low-risk facilitator, but will that be enough to win a national title? He'll be playing behind an offensive line that must replace four starters. The offense's performance will determine the Fighting Irish's upside.
Penn State Nittany Lions (+5000)
If labeling the schedule a flaw made sense, that'd be the choice. Trips to Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio State plus home clashes with Auburn, Indiana and Michigan make for a heck of a slate. However, Penn State has serious concerns at defensive end. Jayson Oweh, Shaka Toney and Shane Simmons are all gone. The Nittany Lions are hoping for a big impact from Temple transfer Arnold Ebiketie.
Texas Longhorns (+5000)
Though having a four-year starter at quarterback offers stability, replacing them is difficult. Casey Thompson and Hudson Card are vying to succeed Sam Ehlinger, and neither one has substantial college reps. Thompson played extremely well in the Alamo Bowl, but that's one postseason game. They have much to prove.
Washington Huskies (+8000)
In a word: offense. Dylan Morris showed promise in four starts last season, and Washington is bringing back plenty of experience. But who's going to provide explosiveness? And, perhaps more importantly, will offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach John Donovan push the ball downfield consistently?
Wisconsin Badgers (+5000)
The good news? Wisconsin blitzed a lot last season. The bad news? Because of an unspectacular defensive line, it was a necessity to generate pressure. The Badgers ranked 93rd nationally in tackles for loss (5.1 per game) and 100th in sacks (1.6). Creativity can help cause disruption, but it won't atone for the absence of a reliable pass-rusher.
Tier 2 Contenders
Florida Gators (+4000)
Two things were true in 2020: Kaiir Elam was among the SEC's top cornerbacks, and Florida had a dreadful secondary. Elam is back, which is a huge positive. But the Gators must improve a unit that surrendered 7.8 yards per attempt (88th) and 28 touchdowns (126th) while making just nine interceptions (35th).
LSU Tigers (+4000)
Since the offensive line seems to have unimpressive depth, that's a position group to remember. The more immediate concern, though, is a running back group that despite featuring talented recruits hasn't thrived. Optimism remains for both Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery Jr., but they're running short on time to show the patience is worth it.
North Carolina Tar Heels (+4000)
North Carolina returns quarterback Sam Howell, the entire offensive line and a majority of its defense, but it is retooling at running back and receiver. On the plus side, Tennessee transfer Ty Chandler boosts the former position. However, the departures of Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome leave the Tar Heels thin on experience at the latter. Beau Corrales should be the top target, but UNC needs a combination of Khafre Brown, Emery Simmons and Josh Downs to excel.
Oregon Ducks (+4000)
While the defense is exciting, Oregon has a big ol' quarterback dilemma. Barring a shocking change, Anthony Brown will lead the offense. The former Boston College signal-caller has 28 career starts, but his past performances don't inspire tremendous confidence. Throw in an early trip to Ohio State, and the Ducks have a thin margin for error.
USC Trojans (+4000)
USC fans already know where this is headed: the offensive line. In the last three seasons, the Trojans have not ranked higher than 87th in yards per carry. And in 2020, they finished 97th in tackles for loss allowed per game (7.2). If it struggles to run the ball or protect Kedon Slovis, USC won't be a national title contender.
Texas A&M Aggies (+3500)
For obvious reasons, quarterback lands the most attention. Texas A&M will replace Kellen Mond with Haynes King or Zach Calzada, who are both unproven.
They're going to need some protection, though.
Kenyon Green earned second-team AP All-American recognition last season, but he's the only returning starter. Tennessee transfer Jahmir Johnson will help, but the Aggies will break in at least three new faces. That's never a painless process.
King or Calzada will be under the most pressure to excel. Yet if the offensive line is mediocre, the quarterback won't have much of a chance to succeed.
Iowa State Cyclones (+3000)
Iowa State always has that game.
Since 2017, the program is 32-19. Not every loss can—or should—be remembered as a disaster, but several fit that description. Iowa State failed to generate 4.5 yards per play in six of those 19 losses and didn't score more than 21 points in 13 of them.
Any number of factors have contributed to the awful performances. Sometimes, the offensive line has a miserable game. Brock Purdy has had turnover woes. And the depth of the receiving unit has been problematic off and on.
No matter the reason, however, that game happens. And it prevents Iowa State from winning the Big 12, let alone more.
Georgia Bulldogs (+650)
Even without star wideout George Pickens (torn right ACL), Georgia's pass-catching group will be fine. There's a bunch of talent on the depth chart.
But the Bulldogs need an elite option to emerge.
Kearis Jackson (514 yards) and Jermaine Burton (404) had decent years in 2020, and so did LSU transfer Arik Gilbert (368). Dominick Blaylock showed potential in 2019 with 310 yards but missed last season with a torn left ACL. Tight end Darnell Washington leads a host of other former top prospects.
If quarterback JT Daniels plays up to his billing, Georgia can be terrific. To win a national title, though, the Dawgs must have a prolific passing attack—not just a good one.
Oklahoma Sooners (+650)
Though the Sooners don't have a glaring issue, they're retooling in the secondary. Tre Norwood and Tre Brown headed to the NFL, and Brendan Radley-Hiles transferred to Washington.
In the Big 12, a defense must be able to defend the pass. Rightfully so, Oklahoma's poor coverage has long been a criticism. But last year, the Sooners led the conference with 16 interceptions and ranked second in yards allowed per pass attempt (6.6).
New look, same results? Or will 2021 be a return to previous years?
Woodi Washington, Jaden Davis and D.J. Graham have starting experience, while Jeremiah Criddell and Billy Bowman should contribute at nickel. If they merely have an adequate year, Oklahoma will be every bit the CFP contender we expect.
Ohio State Buckeyes (+550)
Inexperience at quarterback is a concern, but the talent surrounding C.J. Stroud is incredible. Ohio State has much larger issues in the secondary.
Last season, the Buckeyes ranked 85th nationally with 7.7 yards allowed per pass attempt. No defense in the Big Ten surrendered more explosive gains than Ohio State, which gave up 34 passes of 20-plus yards and seven of 40-plus. Alabama ripped that coverage apart with 464 passing yards in the national championship game.
But the Buckeyes should have a stellar defensive line, and disruption can hide coverage problems. It's not a perfect solution, though.
Ohio State is built for another Big Ten run, but a national title will likely be unattainable if the secondary is bad again.
Clemson Tigers (+380)
In 2018, Clemson finished with the second-most yards per carry (6.6) in the nation. The next season, the Tigers paced the country with 6.4 yards per attempt. Last year, they plummeted to 4.5 to finish 58th in the category.
The best version of this offense features a dynamic running game, and it must be a product of a reliable offensive line.
Spun positively, Clemson returns four starters, is ready to insert top reserve Walker Parks and has highly touted talent on the way. The opposite angle is the Tigers lost their best lineman (Jackson Carman) to the NFL, and experience does not guarantee progression.
Similar to Ohio State in the Big Ten, Clemson is undoubtedly the ACC favorite and an unsurprising CFP threat. The challenge is about potentially needing to hide a subpar unit in the championship game.
Alabama Crimson Tide (+250)
On paper, this outlook should be problematic.
The offense needs to replace a first-team AP All-American at quarterback, running back, receiver, left tackle and center. That doesn't even include a receiver-returner who likely would've been an All-American if he'd played a healthy season.
Knowing this list belongs to Alabama changes the level of concern. Still, experience on offense is the greatest flaw.
The lone returning skill-position starter is wideout John Metchie III. Jahleel Billingsley and Slade Bolden held regular roles, but neither one topped 300 receiving yards. New quarterback Bryce Young threw just 22 passes in garbage-time reps.
Will it matter? History offers a resounding "no." But the Crimson Tide dynasty has to end sometime, right? Maybe?
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