If you have been following me for awhile then you might remember the column I ran a few college football seasons ago called “The Playoff Picture”. After a year away from it, I have decided to bring it back. It’s a good way to get a pulse on the most important teams in college football and how things are shaping up, as well as a weekly time stamp. Before we get started though, a reminder (or ground rule for the newbies) needs to be put in place. These projections are based on how I would vote if the season ended today. These are not projections and they aren’t even really rankings really. These “bowl projections” are how I would set the bowls if this were the end of the season and this were the only body of work we had. (So, don’t @ me when I don’t reward your team’s “good loss” when there are still a plethora of undefeated teams out there).
Sugar Bowl (#1 vs. #4): Alabama vs. Clemson
Much of this week will be devoted to discussing what we have learned about the top teams so far this season, but let’s pause for a second to reflect on a potential rubber match between Alabama and Clemson. For starters, both of these teams have a remarkably similar construct with dynamic athletes at quarterback, stout defenses and talent everywhere. Second, the sheer number of “hype videos” made by both fanbases would probably break YouTube. However, both teams have plenty of issues that need to be addressed if a return to the playoff is to come to fruition.
Alabama has got to get things figured out in the passing game and it starts up front. Jalen Hurts and backup Tua Tagovailoa combined to go 20/27 for 192 yards and two touchdowns against Fresno State this week, which is significantly better than the line that Hurts put up against Florida State on opening weekend (competition level is admittedly a factor in that) but too many times the pocket is collapsing on Hurts before he can get to his second and third reads. The pass protection and Hurts’ confidence in the pocket will both need to improve as the Tide prepares to enter conference play in a few weeks.
Clemson’s issues are similar. The Dabo Swinney era-Tigers built their reputation on offense, but this year the defense is Clemson’s forte. Kelly Bryant is a dynamic athlete and has all the makings of a superstar. His two rushing touchdowns were the difference in the game on Saturday night, but it was also clear that Auburn was willing to dare Bryant to beat them with his arm and he didn’t exactly do that. If he can’t prove to defenses that he can beat them with his arm, then eventually teams will load the box enough to shut down the offense and it will cost Clemson more than just a game. The Tigers have less time to figure things out than Alabama too with a huge trip to Louisville coming up this weekend.
Rose Bowl (#2 vs. #3): USC vs. Oklahoma
Sam Darnold vs. Baker Mayfield could potentially be the best playoff quarterback duel in a playoff game since Marcus Mariota vs. Jameis Winston. Mayfield and the Sooners showed on Saturday night that they are not only good enough to beat anyone in the country, but they will show you up too if you’re not careful. Oklahoma looked like the real deal on Saturday night and they honestly have a strong case to be number one in the country. If there is one criticism of the Sooners’ performance, it was the slow start. The Buckeyes took a 10-3 lead early in the second half before Baker Mayfield decided enough was enough and took over the game.
The Trojans, on the other hand, woke up against Stanford after a less than stellar performance against a still solid Western Michigan team on opening weekend. Darnold played much better this week and lived up to his billing as the top prospect for the 2018 NFL Draft. USC managed to hang 42 points on a solid Stanford defense that I may or may not have predicted to go to the playoffs in the preseason. The game was probably a little closer than the score indicated though and if Stanford can manage to beat Washington at home later in the year then USC may have to repeat its performance against Stanford in the Pac-12 championship game if they want to make a second straight Rose Bowl appearance, this time with a little more at stake.
Orange Bowl: Louisville vs. Georgia
The best thing that can be said about Louisville so far this season is that they are undefeated with two wins over power five teams. That being said, they haven’t exactly looked like a playoff team either. Virginia Tech has a legitimate argument for being in this spot as the de facto second best team in the ACC (more on them later), but for now Louisville holds that title. They won’t next week though, with Clemson coming to town Louisville is either going to vault themselves into the playoff discussion or drop out of the New Year’s Six altogether, temporarily at least. Lamar Jackson vs. the Clemson front seven will bet the best matchup of the coming week and if the reigning Heisman winner wants to join Archie Griffin in the record books then a great game this weekend is probably imperative.
The Dawgs picked up a big win this weekend on the road with a true freshman quarterback, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be some corrections to make at practice this week. Georgia should (operative word) have a relative tune-up game this week with Samford coming to town, which should give them ample opportunity to get some young guys meaningful playing time and work on not making asinine mistakes at inopportune times. Multiple times on Saturday Georgia threatened to give the game away by committing bad penalties. That’s something that someone will make them pay for later in the year if not corrected now. Kirby Smart would do well to instill his team with better decision-making than he displays every time he visits a barber.
Cotton Bowl: Michigan vs. Oklahoma State
Michigan is currently my top-rated team in the Big Ten, but for this week at least the Big Ten is the odd conference out. The main reason for this is the state of Florida’s team on opening weekend, but the Wolverines failed to make a statement this weekend against Cincinnati too. They won easily, but there are potentially major issues at quarterback. If Wilton Speight or John O’Korn can’t show more than they have to this point, then Michigan will get bypassed by one of the many strong Big Ten teams.
In stark contrast, Oklahoma State has no issues with their quarterback play. Mason Rudolph and James Washington have clearly shown why many, including myself, considered them the top QB-WR combo in the country coming into the season. The Cowboys are currently averaging a cool 51.5 points per game in wins over South Alabama and Tulsa, but I’d like to see business-in-the-front-party-in-the-back Gundy and company do it against stronger competition before I commit to them as a legitimate playoff contender.
Fiesta Bowl: San Diego State vs. TCU
Of all this week’s New Year’s Six matchups, this is probably the one that would have been least expected coming into the year. San Diego State is off to a strong start to the season with a 10-point win over Arizona State late Saturday night. The Aztecs have a really great opportunity to show if they are the real deal this coming week with Stanford coming to town, and hungry for a win after a tough loss to USC. San Diego State is developing a reputation for churning out NFL running backs from Marshall Faulk to Ronnie Hillman to Donnel Pumphrey, and if last Saturday was any indication there’s another one on the way (more on that later).
Kenny “Trill” is having quite the rebirth in Fort Worth since leaving Texas A&M, but hot starts have never been his problem. If TCU has any shot of competing for a Big XII title and/or a New Year’s Six berth, then Hill will have to prove that he can be mentally dialed in for a full season. The Horned Frogs picked up a big non-conference road win on Saturday, but the next five weeks will show us if TCU has the sustainability to really threaten Oklahoma for the Big XII crown with SMU, Oklahoma State, Kansas State and West Virginia all coming up.
Peach Bowl: Virginia Tech vs. Penn State
Virginia Tech, and particularly quarterback Josh Jackson, showed the nation that they are a force to be reckoned with in the ACC on a national stage on opening weekend. My “Spread Offense” co-host Brian Hall may have been the biggest admirer, but he certainly wasn’t the only one. Justin Fuente has not only managed to keep this program from regressing since taking over for longtime coach Frank Beamer, but has also managed to gain some positive momentum for the program. The Hokies are still built on the things they’ve always been built on: strong defense and solid special teams, but Jackson adds a dynamic threat to the offense too. Don’t sleep on the Hokies, because as of now they are officially a playoff contender.
Another playoff contender is the Penn State Nittany Lions. The Lions haven’t faced a real test yet this season so it’s hard to slot them into the playoffs yet when other teams have tried their strength against a top flight team and prevailed, but James Franklin’s team has performed up to standard so far this season. Saquon Barkley was considered by many to be a Heisman frontrunner, and my pick by the way, coming into the season and he has definitely lived up to the hype so far. Defenses can’t afford to stack the box to take him out of the picture though because Trace McSorley and DaeSean Hamilton are one of the best QB-WR connections in the country, so Penn State will constantly make defenses feel “damned if they do” all season long.
**Bonus Bowl** Foster Farms Bowl- Ohio State vs. Washington
The first of two new features for this year’s “Playoff Picture” is the Bonus Bowl. Each week, I will project every bowl game and mention the non-New Year’s Six matchup that I find the most interesting. This week’s is the Foster Farms Bowl, where if the season ended today we would find Ohio State vs. Washington. Plenty of people might have projected this as a potential Rose Bowl matchup coming into the season and that’s still a possibility, but both of these teams have some serious re-evaluation and improvement to make before loftier ambitions can be entertained.
Ohio State showed against Indiana that their offense can be inconsistent and the passing game can go dormant for long stretches. It cost them against Oklahoma. The Buckeyes are as talented as anyone in the country, but J.T. Barrett has not progressed as a passer after bursting onto the scene as a freshman a few years ago. Meanwhile, Washington’s inconsistency hasn’t cost them a game yet, but if they don’t play better than they did against Rutgers on opening weekend then it will. They smoked Montana last weekend, so maybe they have figured it out but let’s see them do it against stronger competition before we give them the benefit of the doubt.
The second of two new features of the “Playoff Picture” is the “Pick Six”. Each week, I will pick six players in six of the biggest games from the upcoming week to focus on and tell you why you should too.
1. Kelly Bryant- We discussed him earlier, but I believe he has a coming out party at some point this year and it could be this weekend.
2. Antonio Callaway- Callaway’s absence from Florida’s opener was a big reason why their offense looked awful, but he should make his debut Saturday. Tennessee also isn’t likely to forget what he did to them two years ago.
3. Chris Warren III- Texas found a running game against San Jose State last week and if Shane Buechele can’t go this week then the Longhorns will need to ground and pound to have any chance against USC this week (and it’s still slim even with that).
4. Leo Lewis- Mississippi State takes on LSU this week, which means the defense will need all hands on deck to slow down Derrius Guice. Lewis has another potentially big thing on his plate this week if he decides to appear at the Ole Miss COI meeting today. (If he doesn’t, then technically his eligibility could be in jeopardy). UPDATE: As of about 9:45, Lewis had not reported to the COI meeting.
5. Ula Tolutau- Tolutau is the only BYU player to have a touchdown against an FBS team this season. He had 5 rushes for 25 yards and a touchdown (all in the second half) on Saturday. He also is a former Wisconsin commit, so this weekend will be a good opportunity for the freshman to keep his momentum going against his almost team.
6. Rashaad Penny- Penny is the aforementioned San Diego State running back who could join the illustrious company of Faulk, Hillman and Pumphrey. Penny racked up 335 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns against Arizona State. Let’s see what he does against Stanford this weekend.
Cover Photo Courtesy of Jason Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports