The College Football Playoff lineup has been set, with the committee going with the following selections:
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
2. Clemson Tigers
3. Ohio State Buckeyes
4. Washington Huskies
Let’s take a look at some immediate takeaways off of those choices, using PFF’s grades and data from grading every player on every play this college football season:
1. The best team to get left out of the playoff is Michigan, not Penn State.
All four of the teams that will be in this year’s playoff rank in the top five of PFF’s cumulative grades for 2016. Alabama ranks first, Washington second, Ohio State fourth and Clemson fifth.
The No. 3 team in the country? The Michigan Wolverines.
Michigan was placed sixth by the committee, behind a Penn State Nittany Lions team at No. 5 that ranked much further down in our cumulative grades by virtue of their early-season struggles, which included a Week 4 loss to Michigan by the score of 49-10.
The cumulative grades are not an all-encompassing metric, and they do not consider which team is most accomplished in terms of wins and losses. But they are a very effective measure of how productive each team’s players and units have played over the course of the season, and in this case, illustrate that in terms of identifying the top teams in the country, Michigan belongs right up there with the nation’s best.
In particular, when looking at a team that could match up best with top-seeded Alabama, the Wolverines appear to be one of the best candidates. They rank third in PFF’s run-defense grades, second in pass-rush and 12th in coverage – giving them a defense that could go toe-to-toe with Alabama’s and perhaps put enough pressure on Crimson Tide’s freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts (more on him in a bit) to spark an upset.
2. Alabama’s pass rush figures to be too much for Washington.
The Crimson Tide have been the best team in the country this season by almost any measure, but perhaps their best quality is their ability to get after opposing quarterbacks. They rank No. 1 in PFF’s pass-rush grades, led by edge rushers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson (each has had 50 total QB pressures this season, with Williams ranking No. 1 among all Power-5 edge defenders in pass-rush productivity) and interior D-lineman Jonathan Allen, whose 56 total pressures leads the country at his position.
The Huskies, meanwhile, have struggled in pass protection this season, grading poorly in that facet of the game. In their one loss this season, to USC, quarterback Jake Browning was under pressure on 23 of his 43 dropbacks, and earned a passer rating of just 28.9 on those plays.
3. But Washington’s defense could cause some trouble for Alabama’s freshman QB.
Hurts has had an excellent season, as a true freshman quarterback leading the No. 1 team in the country to an undefeated year. But there is a huge difference in his play from when he has a clean pocket to when he is put under pressure:
Hurts’ QB rating from a clean pocket: 119.7 (ninth-best in the country)
Hurts’ QB rating when under pressure: 22.9 (second-worst in the country)
The Huskies are the owners of one of the best pass defenses in the country this season, ranking eighth in pass-rush grades and sixth in coverage grades, and they are arguably even better against the run, ranking second only to Alabama in that area of the game. Hurts will be in for a major challenge in this one.
4. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson’s 90.8 PFF grade rank third among all quarterbacks in college football.
Watson had a relatively slow start to the season, at least based upon what was expected of him entering the year, but he has come on strong down the stretch. He has an adjusted completion rate of 83.4 percent over the course of the last five games that ranks second in the Power-5, and he has graded very well during the stretch. He now has a PFF grade of 90.8 that ranks third in college football behind only Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Louisville’s Lamar Jackson.
Ohio State has a very formidable defense, including a pass rush that ranks fifth in PFF grades – but the Buckeyes will be facing off against the highest-graded QB of the four that made the playoff in their semifinal matchup.
5. Pass protection could be a concern for Ohio State against the Tigers.
As you’d expect for a team that made the playoff, the Buckeyes have very few weaknesses. But one area to keep an eye on is in pass protection. They ranks very poorly in PFF pass-block grades, and will be facing a Clemson team that ranks sixth in PFF pass-rush grades.
While Barrett’s struggles against pressure aren’t as significant as those of Hurts (see above), he ranks 16th in the nation in passer rating from a clean pocket, while ranking just 40th against pressure. Their one loss, to Penn State, coincided with Barrett being under pressure on 28 of his 53 dropbacks, and Michigan’s pass rush was able to pressure him on 24 of his 43 dropbacks in the Buckeyes’ 30-27 double-overtime win that nearly went the Wolverines’ way. This figures to be an area of focus for Ohio State heading into the semifinals.