All 6 College Football National Title Contenders’ Biggest Flaws
USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and Dabo Swinney
- Each of the six favorites to win the College Football Playoff has at least one flaw.
- The only question is whether anyone can take advantage of these flaws during the regular season.
A handful of college football teams have begun to really separate themselves from the pack. But each national-title contender has shown a crack, including Alabama.
Using Westgate’s odds, we looked at the six teams that are under 25-1 to win the national title — Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Georgia, Oklahoma and Notre Dame — and tried to identify what could trip each of these teams up. There are more national title contenders, sure, but we had to cap it somewhere. And the implied probability of these odds say one of these teams will almost certainly win it.
The stats we dig into below mostly come via Football Study Hall’s advanced stats team profiles.
With The Action Network’s betting power ratings, we’ve also projected point spreads for each team’s toughest remaining games (assuming three points for home-field advantage).
Alabama: The Tide Is Susceptible to Big Plays
- National Title Odds: -225
- Toughest Remaining Games: @LSU (-15), vs. Miss. State (-21), vs. Auburn (-13.5)
The offense is unbelievable. The defense is still terrifying, despite a lot of new faces. But Alabama has given up a few more big plays than you’d think, given how good the team has looked.
The Tide’s defense ranks 94th of 130 FBS teams in IsoPPP, a measure of explosiveness. The unit has given up 18 plays of more than 20 yards — 78th in FBS.
Maybe teams know they can’t move the ball, so they take shots and pray it works.
It doesn’t look like there’s a team left on ‘Bama’s regular-season schedule that can exploit this enough to keep up with the Tide’s offense (though Mississippi State and Auburn have the best chance), so it might not matter until December.
Clemson: Still Not Sold on the Secondary
- National Title Odds: +450
- Toughest Remaining Games: @Boston College (-13.5), vs. NC State (-22.5), vs. South Carolina (-20)
We knew this coming into the season — Clemson’s front seven would be absolutely dominant while the secondary had something to prove — but we’ve only gotten one meaningful game to measure it. The Tigers have played FCS Furman and two option teams in Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern. The defensive line dominated, naturally.
The only game we can take anything from is Texas A&M, when Aggies quarterback Kellen Mond threw for 430 yards at an excellent 10.8 yards per attempt.
Clemson’s pass defense ranks 117th of 130 teams in efficiency and 83rd in passing explosiveness. Mond completed 10 passes of at least 20 yards in that game.
The Tigers have sacked the opposition on more than 18% of drop backs — the best rate in the country, which could cover up a lot of warts on the back end.
We’ll see if NC State or South Carolina can test this Clemson secondary down the stretch, but both teams will be close to three-touchdown underdogs.
Ohio State: The Buckeyes Give Up Big Plays, Too
- National Title Odds: +450
- Toughest Remaining Games: @Penn State (-3.5), vs. Michigan State (-18.5), @Michigan (-4.5)
Like Alabama, Ohio State gives up too many big plays. The Buckeyes rank 105th in IsoPPP, which is that explosiveness measure we mentioned earlier. Much of that has come against the pass defense, but OSU has been sloppy covering its assignments at times against the run, too.
Parts of that Oregon State game were ugly. I mean, come on.
Penn State had the country’s most explosive offense in 2016, but came back to earth in 2017 when teams schemed to take that away. This season, the Nittany Lions rank 76th in offensive IsoPPP despite averaging 55 points per game, so they might not be the team to beat Ohio State with big plays consistently when the two meet this weekend.
Michigan State and Michigan probably won’t, either. So like Alabama, it might not matter until December.
Georgia: The Bulldogs’ Trench Play
- National Title Odds: +700
- Toughest Remaining Games: @LSU (-8), vs. Auburn (-6.5), vs. Florida (-16)
There are a few directions to go with this one, including lack of a consistent pass rush and a bend-don’t-break defense that might bend a little too much. The Dawgs rank 101st out of 130 in success rate, which means teams move the ball effectively against them. Georgia just doesn’t give up big plays.
In a sloppy, weird win over Missouri, both lines look like an issue, especially on the ground.
The Tigers gashed Georgia consistently by running the ball, and that’s not a new thing: The Dawgs rank 123rd of 130 teams in opportunity rate on defense (how often they’re limiting carries to five yards or fewer).
This play doesn’t look like much, but Missouri gets way too good of a push on the left side of the line when Georgia has the box stacked.
On offense, the line looked great to start the season, but right guard Ben Cleveland will miss at least a month with a fractured leg and left tackle Andrew Thomas has been hobbled. Thomas was limited last week against Mizzou.
Everyone wants to call Kirby Smart’s program the new Alabama, and it might just be soon. But the elite recruiting hasn’t quite matriculated enough yet to immediately replace a top-five defense the way the Tide can.
Oklahoma: The Sooners … Entire Defense?
- National Title Odds: +2500
- Toughest Remaining Games: vs. Texas (-12), @TCU (-6.5), @West Virginia (-8)
Sorry for being so broad. The secondary is probably a little worse than the front seven, but it’s all just … a little below average.
The Sooners rank 78th in success rate, so teams can move the ball on them. They limit explosiveness well, but give up medium-sized chunks of yardage.
Wins in the past two weeks over Iowa State and Army showed the same issue in a different way. The Cyclones moved the ball through the air with ease — 25-of-36 passing for 360 yards — while Army used its triple option to run for 339 yards and completely control the clock.
Oklahoma fans should hope last week’s game against Army was just an outlier given the Knights’ offensive style, since the rushing defense had been better to start the season.
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Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish Are … Pretty Complete?
- National Title Odds: +2500
- Toughest Remaining Games: vs. Stanford (-5.5), @Va. Tech (-9.5), @USC (-8.5)
For every other team, something jumped out. For Notre Dame, there wasn’t much … depending on how good you think Ian Book is.
Book took over at quarterback for Brandon Wimbush last week against Wake Forest and unlocked the Irish’s explosive potential. The offense racked up 566 yards at 7.45 per play and looked much more efficient.
There are probably better examples of this and a penalty wiped out this catch anyway, but watch when Ian Book locks into this throw. Kevin Austin has barely *started* his break. Irish offense couldn't think about this kind of completion before Saturday. pic.twitter.com/kwYht7t1wp
— Pete Sampson (@PeteSampson_) September 23, 2018
Wimbush can make plays with his legs, but he hasn’t developed as a passer. It almost cost the Irish against Ball State and Vanderbilt, so coach Brian Kelly was proactive about making a change.
If Book is as good as he looked against Wake Forest, there’s not an obvious hole on this team.
The defensive front seven is great, the secondary has plenty of potential and the offense has playmakers, despite losing a ton this offseason.