Playoff Picture: Weak Links

Last week saw two previously unbeaten teams, LSU and Oklahoma, lose to bitter rivals due in large part to their weakest links finally being exploited to a degree that they couldn’t be overcome. In Oklahoma’s case, the sieve they call a defense was finally porous enough that their explosive offense couldn’t keep pace with their opponent, although they came close with a 4th quarter surge. LSU, on the other hand, is a program that is wholeheartedly devoted to the brand of football that’s been labeled as “hard-nosed”, “smashmouth” and “real man football”. This identity has come at the expense of having an offense with the capacity for big plays. That lack of explosiveness cost the Tigers on Saturday when 6 of their 15 offensive possessions ended up gaining three yards or fewer. For today’s column, we will take a look at the current New Year’s Six bowls (remember this is based off if the season had ended after Saturday not what I’m predicting) and try to identify their weak links.

Cotton Bowl (#1 vs. #4)- Notre Dame vs. Clemson

Gregory Fisher:Icon Sportswire
Photo Courtesy of Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire

Notre Dame has been pretty much firing on all cylinders since moving Ian Book to starting quarterback. The offense can score in a multitude of ways and the defense is the best they have had since the 2012 season. The one spot where they seem to be vulnerable is at the nickel back position when an offense can force them to spread out from their base defense. This is most likely due to the fact that Shaun Crawford, the expected starting nickel back, tore his ACL in fall camp. The good news for the Irish is that the only team remaining on their schedule that might be capable of exploiting this is Syracuse. The bad news is that every legitimate playoff contender currently boasts a solid passing game and a plethora of offensive playmakers.

This is probably going to sound insane to say about a team coming off of a 63-point performance, but offensive consistency has been a bit of an issue for Clemson. Trevor Lawrence’s promotion to full-time quarterback might put an end to that, but we have already seen what this offense might look like if he were to have to miss time. It wasn’t pretty. With Kelly Bryant gone, Clemson can’t afford to have Lawrence miss any time and he’s already had one concussion this year.

Orange Bowl (#2 vs. #3)- Alabama vs. Ohio State

Kent Gidley
Photo Courtesy of Kent Gidley

Most of you will probably think I’m picking nits in looking for weaknesses on a team that has won all of it’s games by 3+ touchdowns at the halfway point of the season, but Alabama did give up 31 points to a bad Arkansas team last weekend. The secondary as a whole has been an area of concern, but where this team has really suffered has been in the kicking game. Alabama has missed PATs and shanked punts all season long and if they got stuck in a tight game having to rely on a big kick to win I’m afraid the result would look like this:

Instead of this:

Ohio State is another team that it feels like picking nits to look for criticisms, but Urban Meyer himself has stated that consistency in the running game is something the Buckeyes need to improve. Granted, he does allegedly have some memory problems due to some medications he’s taken in the past so maybe he just doesn’t remember the games. J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber should be an awesome running back tandem as they are both uber-talented and can hurt defenses in myriad ways, but the Buckeyes have a merely average rushing attack right now. When Ohio State comes up against a defense like Michigan’s at the end of the year, the ability to sustain and extend drives will be a critical key to winning the game. The way that they will do that is by being able to reliably pick up yards on the ground, so this is a problem that Meyer has correctly identified and needs to address before season’s end.

Rose Bowl- Colorado vs. Michigan

AP Photo:David Zalubowski
Photo Courtesy of AP Photo/David Zalubowski

This might sound a little bit harsh, but Colorado’s biggest weakness in comparison to the rest of these teams is a talent gap. The fact of the matter is that Colorado is largely undefeated right now because they have played a downright miserable schedule for a Power Five team. Plenty of people have been criticizing the schedule that Alabama has played to date, and not incorrectly so, but the Buffaloes have truly yet to face a real test. Now, it’s entirely possible that this is going to be a special team that outperforms it’s “star rating” all year, but that’s not something I’ll be prepared to bank on until they start beating better teams.

I alluded to Michigan’s major flaw in last week’s column, but since that’s the theme of the week we will re-visit it here. The Wolverines are plagued by inconsistency or as I put it last week: they are college football’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Michigan has everything a college football team needs to be good: an elite defense, strong line play and a five-star recruit (who doesn’t look like a bust) at quarterback. The problem is that sometimes they just don’t play like that team, and that’s something that will likely cost them another game and a shot at the playoffs before the end of the season.

Sugar Bowl- Georgia vs. West Virginia

Hyosub Shin:Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo Courtesy of Hyosub Shin/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

This Georgia team isn’t as good as last year’s team. With how much talent Georgia lost, that’s to be expected, but there is still a ton of talent on this team so the Bulldogs are one of the few and maybe the only undefeated team left that could stand to make a sizable jump between here and the end of the season because of the youth of the team. The biggest weak point for this team right now is the defensive front. The Missouri game showed that if you can protect the ball this team can be scored on. Missouri couldn’t do that and it was the reason they lost, but what Missouri did do well was move the ball on the ground. These are things that could be problematic this weekend with Georgia traveling to Baton Rouge or again at the end of the month with the annual showdown in Jacksonville against Florida, but if Georgia can make the leap I think they can then they can win both of these teams and keep their spot on the list of legitimate title contenders.

One of the biggest differences between Drew Brees and Andrew Luck (other than age and stats) is offensive line play. That’s also going to be the biggest difference between Will Grier having a monster season and having a decent season. If the Mountaineers can figure out the line play, then they absolutely have everything else they need to win the Big XII. The other major obstacle standing between West Virginia and a potential conference title is a brutal schedule to cap the season beginning with a trip to Ames that has become a perennial stumbling block for Big XII hopefuls.

Fiesta Bowl- Texas vs. Penn State

Matthew O'Haren:USA TODAY Sports
Photo Courtesy of Matthew O’Haren/USA TODAY Sports

Texas’s weakest link is a combination of Michigan’s with a little bit of Clemson’s thrown in. The problem is that the Longhorns aren’t as good, or as talented, as either of those teams, which makes it more likely that these issues become a fatal flaw. Sam Ehlinger seems to be the right answer at quarterback for the Horns at least and he was lights out against Oklahoma last week, but we also saw him lead an offense that only managed 19 points against a mediocre Kansas State team the previous week. The good news is that Texas just took and passed the toughest test on its conference schedule. The bad news is that the Texas we’ve come to know is capable of losing any and all of the rest of the games on their schedule too.

Slow starts had been Penn State’s most glaring weakness prior to their showdown with Ohio State two weeks ago, but the Nittany Lions beat the Buckeyes for the first three and a half quarters before giving up 13 late points in the fourth quarter to drop their first game of the season. Now, Penn State faces a major problem. They are the only one of these teams who already has a conference loss, and it happens to be a division loss. That’s an uphill struggle that means Penn State already is looking at needing outside help to get back on the inside of the playoff hunt, and they can absolutely not afford another slip-up and plenty of land mines are out there starting this weekend with Michigan.

Peach Bowl- UCF vs. N.C. State

Grant Halverson:Getty Images
Photo Courtesy of Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Unfortunately, UCF faces the same issues that it faced last year and none of them are within their power to correct. They have already lost one game against a Power Five team to a hurricane, just like last year. They are in an “inferior” conference and “don’t play anybody”, so it doesn’t matter if they win every game by triple digits or not everyone is going to treat them as if they were the guy playing Madden on “Semi-Pro” and just trouncing teams that don’t have a chance. I made my thoughts on UCF very clear last year so I won’t re-hash that for the 50th time, but I will say one more time that if the Knights run the table and there aren’t four other undefeated teams then it should be a no-brainer that UCF should get a shot in the playoff.

Nobody, myself included, thought much of N.C. State’s undefeated start until their win against Boston College last weekend. Some of that has to do with their early season schedule, and even more of it has to do with the fact that they also lost a game to the hurricane. It was also supposed to be their biggest non-conference game of the season. Ryan Finley is the most underrated quarterback in the country and gives the Wolfpack a legitimate shot at an ACC title, but I still wonder if they have the playmakers elsewhere to keep up with the other elite teams. Kelvin Harmon looks like a beast at wide receiver and the Wolfpack ran the ball well against a decent Boston College defense. It’s not out of the question that this N.C. State team has the playmaking ability to compete, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t still a question either. We should get the answer to this two weekends from now when the Pack take their talents to Clemson.

Cover Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

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