College News & Analysis

2023-24 College Football Playoff: Key factors and why each team can win or lose

2MAK5JM Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy (9) signals during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Hawaii, Saturday, Sept. 10, 2022, in Ann Arbor, Mich. (AP Photo/Jose Juarez)

Michigan is dominant but untested: Led by their defense, the Wolverines are undefeated but the level of their competition doesn't match their potential playoff opponents.

Washington-Texas looks like a shootout waiting to happen: Both offenses have a ton of firepower and should put a ton of points in the opening round.

Alabama lives and dies by Jalen Milroe: After being benched earlier in the season, Milroe is playing at a high level and looks to lead Nick Saban's Crimson Tide to another national championship.

Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

After months of debates, big wins, devastating losses and all-around chaos, we have our four playoff teams. In one of the most controversial ranking, the teams that will be competing for college football’s top prize are Michigan, Washington, Texas and Alabama.

Each team arrived to the College Football Playoffs in a different manner and for this piece, we’re going to take a look at what it will take for each to hoist the championship trophy, what could be their downfall, and a key factor that could swing each team’s title hopes one way or another.

Michigan Wolverines

Why they will win: Defense

A staple of the Jim Harbaugh era, Michigan has dominated on defense in 2023. The Wolverines defense is one of the best in Power-Five, posting a 95.3 grade while also maintaining team 90.0-plus marks in run defense (91.9), pass rush (90.3) and coverage (92.9). Michigan is also the most efficient on that side of the ball, as its -0.301 EPA per play allowed leads the country. 

There isn’t a weak link on that side of the ball, as the Wolverines have 19 different players who played over 100 snaps and carry a 70.0-plus PFF grade. The distribution of these players among position groups is very balanced, as eight of these 19 players are linemen, three are off-ball linebackers and eight are defensive backs. The player that best exemplifies Michigan’s versatility on defense is Mike Sainristil. While primarily playing as a slot corner, Sainristil also has 135 snaps outside, 78 in the box and even 19 as a defensive lineman. He’s also been very opportunistic with five interceptions, returning three for scores.

Michigan hasn’t faced too many high-powered offenses this season, but when it did, such as Penn State and Ohio State, the Wolverines came to play. Penn State was held to just 15 points, holding Drew Allar to a 51.4 passing grade while Kyle McCord had a similarly difficult time, as he was held to a 59.7 passing grade.

Why they will lose: Untested

Michigan hasn’t had to play from behind much this season. This can be partially attributed to a mostly weak schedule, as the only teams they’ve faced that featured on the final CFP rankings are Penn State, Ohio State and Iowa. Michigan only played two games that ended with a one-score difference, Ohio State and Maryland, both of which came during head coach Jim Harbaugh’s second three-game suspension of the season. 

Michigan has mostly been able to control games but what happens when things don’t go according to plan? The Wolverines had similar success heading into the playoff last year but when they got off to a shaky start against TCU, all hell broke loose. Despite quarterback JJ McCarthy throwing for 343 yards with two touchdowns and four big-time throws, he finished with a 58.5 passing grade thanks in large part to three turnover-worthy plays, two of which turned into pick-sixes. Much like last season, Michigan hasn’t been tested very often, so what happens if Alabama gets out to an early lead?  

Key Factor: Replacing Zak Zinter

Perhaps no injury has the potential to be more devastating to a unit than Zinter on Michigan’s offensive line. One thing Michigan likes to do is run the football, as over 55% of its offensive snaps came on the ground, a rarity in today’s game. To be as successful as Michigan is, a great offensive line is critical, and it doesn’t get much better than right guard Zak Zinter, who only allowed five pressures all season, none of which resulted in sacks or hits while posting grades over 70 in both run and pass blocking. 

Unfortunately for the maize and blue, Zinter went down with a broken tibia and fibula during the Ohio State game and will be out for the playoff. Zinter's presence is so critical, as Michigan often liked to run behind him, particularly when using man-blocking schemes.

Zinter was replaced by Karsen Barnhart, who kicked inside from right tackle to take over guard duties while Trente Jones filled in at right tackle. Their first real test was against Iowa in the Big Ten Championship, and they both held up reasonably well, as Jones had an 85.5 PFF pass-blocking grade to go along with a 71.5 PFF run-blocking grade while Barnhart posted a 75.5 pass-blocking grade , though there were some struggles in run blocking, as he finished with a 59.5 grade in that department.

Washington Huskies

Why they will win: High-flying passing attack

Of the quarterbacks competing in the CFP, only one got an invite to New York as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy: Washington's Michael Penix Jr. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as not only did Penix lead the nation in passing yards last season but he also did it again this year, throwing for 4295 yards, 33 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Penix had the most passes resulting in a first down (217, 14 more than second-place Bo Nix) and trailed only North Carolina’s Drake Maye in big-time throws with 32 (Maye had 34). This all culminated in a 90.2 passing grade while leading this offense to a 0.215 EPA per play, both were the best amongst playoff teams.

Penix didn’t do it alone, though, as he has an elite cast of pass catchers. The Huskies led all Power-Five teams in receiving grade in 2023 (88.6). Leading the way is Rome Odunze, whom many felt could have been a first-round pick had he declared for the NFL draft last season. Odunze decided to return to school and the Huskies benefited greatly from his presence, as he caught 81 passes for 1,428 yards and 13 touchdowns en route to an 87.9 receiving grade. Odunze and Penix had such a strong connection that only Virginia’s Malik Washington was targeted more frequently than Odunze. 

Nonetheless, he wasn’t Washington’s only dominant pass catcher, as Ja’Lynn Polk also had a 1,000-yard season, catching 61 passes for 1,009 yards and eight scores of his own. And to make this offense even more dangerous, they should have Jalen McMillan at full health once the playoffs start. McMillan was limited due to a knee injury that had been nagging him for much of the season. If he’s fully healthy, it’s going to be nearly impossible to put the clamps on this passing attack.

Why they will lose: Season full of close calls comes back to haunt them

While the biggest flaw for Michigan is that it has hardly been tested this year, Washington’s may be that it has been tested too frequently. After winning each of their first four games by at least 27 points, the Huskies' last nine all came down to the wire, as the only games that weren’t one-score affairs were Stanford and USC, which they won by nine and 10 points, respectively. While it is impressive that Washington was able to win all of these games, one has to wonder if the Huskies can continue to keep this up. The offense is special, but it kind of has to be considering the defense has been shaky at times. 

Key Factor: Tackling woes

Speaking of shaky defense, look no further than Washington’s tackling. The Huskies missed 149 tackles this season, eighth-most in the Power Five, though just edging out Texas’ 147 missed tackles amongst remaining CFP teams. However, Michigan and Alabama had far fewer, as the Wolverines missed just 58 tackles while Alabama missed 101. Washington’s 61.7 tackling grade is also the eighth-worst amongst Power-Five teams, even lower than the much-maligned USC defense. 

The one guy on their defense who hasn’t fallen victim to the team’s missed tackle problem is their star linebacker Edefuan Ulofoshio, who only missed nine tackles this season. While he may not be a household name to the average college football fan, Ulofoshio has been the most well-rounded player on a defense that includes potential first-round pick Bralen Trice. Ulofoshio is the team’s highest-graded defender at 86.7 overall with high marks in run defense (74.5), tackling (78.0), pass rushing (78.8) and coverage (91.0). If things turn into a shootout like is expected against Texas, it may come down to a guy like Ulofoshio to make a play at a critical moment.

Texas Longhorns

Why they will win: Ewers and the explosive offense stay hot

Quinn Ewers is one of the highest-rated high school recruits of all time and was a big get for the Texas Longhorns after he transferred from Ohio State. However, the results have been mixed during his time in Austin. His first year in Texas was just OK, as he completed just 57.8% of his passes for 2,174 yards with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. Ewers also had 19 big-time throws as opposed to 12 turnover-worthy plays to go along with a 70.9 PFF passing grade. 

Ewers took a big leap as a junior, though, as his completion percentage jumped to 70.1 after throwing for 3,142 yards with 21 touchdowns, six interceptions and an 84.0 PFF passing grade. Ewers’ biggest game came in what is now one of the most critical wins of the season, as he led Texas to a 10-point win over fellow CFP team Alabama in Tuscaloosa in Week 2. In that game, Ewers completed 24-of-38 passes for 349 yards and three touchdowns and three big-time throws for an elite 90.6 PFF passing grade, the highest of his collegiate career.

Part of this leap in success can be attributed to gaining Adonai Mitchell in the transfer portal from Georgia to pair alongside Xavier Worthy. Mitchell caught 51 passes for 813 yards, a team-leading 10 touchdowns and a 75.1 receiving grade while Worthy added 73 catches, a team-leading 969 yards, five touchdowns and a 74.0 receiving grade of his own. Not to be lost in the shuffle is tight end Ja’Tavion Sanders, who — if not for Brock Bowers — may hold the title of the nation’s best at the position. Sanders leads the team with a 78.1 receiving grade while catching 39 passes for 607 yards and a pair of scores.

Why they will lose: Inconsistent secondary lets them down

Texas’ secondary has been about as inconsistent this season as there is in college football. As a unit, it has four games with an 80.0-plus PFF coverage grade and two more that are so close to that number that you can probably throw them in as well while the other seven are either right around or well below 60. Their three lowest coverage grades came against Alabama, Kansas and their one loss to arch-rival Oklahoma. Alabama and Oklahoma featured excellent quarterbacks in Jalen Milroe and Dillon Gabriel while Kansas was trotting out their backup quarterback in that matchup. Texas is set to face Washington and Michael Penix Jr, a Heisman trophy candidate who has led the nation in passing each of the last two seasons and if Quinn Ewers is able to outduel him, they’ll either face JJ McCarthy or have a rematch with Milroe. Things could get ugly for this unit if this trend continues.

Key Factor: Replacing Jonathon Brooks

It’s not often that a team loses running backs like Bijan Robinson and Roschon Johnson but is immediately able to replicate their success; however, that’s precisely what Texas was able to do with Jonathon Brooks and CJ Baxter. Brooks was having a dominant season, rushing for 1,135 yards on 187 carries for 10 touchdowns and a 91.3 PFF rushing grade before suffering an ACL injury late in the season against TCU. 

In Brooks’ absence, CJ Baxter will have to go from sidekick to leading man, though based on his performance this season, he’s more than up to the challenge. Baxter has 603 yards on 130 carries for four touchdowns and a 74.0 PFF rushing grade of his own, which is enough to be a top back at most programs. 

Also potentially featuring in the Longhorns’ backfield are Jaydon Blue and Alabama transfer Keilan Robinson (no relation to Bijan). Blue was the third back in the rotation who carried himself well, rushing for 339 yards on just 56 carries for two scores and a 76.6 rushing grade. 

A potential wild card is Robinson, who was used more frequently as a return man but was extremely dynamic in that role. On 19 kick returns, Robinson had 463 return yards and scored a touchdown against Texas Tech. This explosiveness carried over when he saw the field on offense, as despite only having 12 carries, he ran for 134 yards, three touchdowns and an 87.3 rushing grade. A small sample size, sure, but one that could pay dividends for Texas against a Washington team with suspect tackling.

Alabama Crimson Tide

Why they will win: Defense makes things easy for offense

Historically, Alabama and great defense have been synonymous with each other and 2023 has been no different. Not only has the pass rush been great, as they tied with Tennessee for the SEC lead with 261 pressures, but the secondary has been dominant. All four starting DBs have 80.0-plus PFF coverage grades. Another defensive player worth highlighting is edge defender Dallas Turner. Not only does Turner have 52 pressures, including 10 sacks and 10 QB hits to go with an 89.4 PFF pass-rushing grade, but he also excels in coverage, as his 81.0 grade in that department can attest to. There are no glaring weaknesses with this Alabama defense.

Why they will lose: Milroe’s inconsistent play rears its ugly head

While Jalen Milroe does have an elite 90.6 offensive grade and an impressive 81.5 passing grade, it hasn’t always been sunshine and rainbows for the Crimson Tide’s signal-caller. His worst games came in some of Alabama’s biggest matchups, as he had a 58.2 PFF offensive grade to go with a 53.3 PFF passing grade in the loss to Texas that led to him getting benched against South Florida. 

He responded well to the benching, as he followed that up with his two best games against Power-Five opponents, as he had 88.3 and 90.0 PFF offensive grades against Ole Miss and Mississippi State while also putting up 82.9 and 74.1 PFF passing grades in those matchups. He was pretty solid the rest of the way until the SEC championship against Georgia, where he struggled with a 58.4 PFF offensive grade and a season-low 50.2 PFF passing grade. 

Even in the win over Tennessee, Milroe got off to a shaky start, as he had a passing grade of just 57.7 in the first half as Alabama fell behind 20-7. He was able to make adjustments in the second half of that game, as his passing grade in the second half jumped to 75.5 as Alabama went on a 27-0 run to win the game. Michigan is the best defense Alabama will play all year so it will be interesting to see which Jalen Milroe the Crimson Tide will get at the Rose Bowl.

Key Factor: Protecting Milroe

Alabama typically has an outstanding offensive line and that has been the case this year as well for the most part. JC Latham has been terrific at right tackle, only allowing one sack this year with an 82.4 PFF pass-blocking grade while left guard Tyler Booker has been equally as good, also allowing just one sack with an 80.3 PFF pass-blocking grade. 

However, there has been a weak link on the Alabama front: freshman left tackle Kadyn Proctor. While Proctor will likely become an excellent tackle down the line, as he’s still developing as an 18-year-old starter, he has been tested often, allowing 11 sacks and 33 total pressures in 13 games this season with a 58.8  PFF pass-blocking grade. 

He did have his best game of the season in the SEC championship game against Georgia, though, as he only allowed one pressure (a sack) on 30 pass-blocking snaps against the vaunted Georgia defense for a 79.2 PFF pass-blocking grade. If he plays against Michigan like he did against Georgia, that could open up this Alabama offense.

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