College Football Playoff: Biggest question facing every legit contender

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 5: Quarterback Justin Fields #1 of the Ohio State Buckeyes runs with the ball against the Michigan State Spartans at Ohio Stadium on October 5, 2019 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 5: Quarterback Justin Fields #1 of the Ohio State Buckeyes runs with the ball against the Michigan State Spartans at Ohio Stadium on October 5, 2019 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images) /

There appears to miles between the contenders and pretenders, but that doesn’t mean the top teams are flawless. These are the biggest questions facing each College Football Playoff contender at the halfway point of the season.

The first College Football Playoff is on its way in less than a month. Lots can (and will) change between the now and the first ranking and between the first ranking and the College Football Playoff selection. But right now, each of the top candidates for the College Football Playoff has questions looming, some bigger than others.

Alabama: Is the defense really this (comparatively) shaky?

Despite giving up 10 points or less in half of their games, some of Alabama’s advanced statistics are middle of the Top 25 pack. The Crimson Tide has the 18th highest explosive drive rate, per FEI, which leaves them vulnerable to big plays and long drives. They also rank 24th in drives that allow zero or negative yards. When they meet LSU’s stunningly high-powered offense in November, the fireworks will fly, unless the defense tightens up.

LSU: Can the defense stop Tua and the Alabama offense?

Unfortunately for all teams in the SEC, the road to the College Football Playoff runs through Alabama, and LSU will need its defense to step up to beat this year’s Alabama squad. LSU’s defense ranks 53rd in overall defensive FEI, nestled between Arizona and Nebraska. Meanwhile, Alabama’s offense is the best in the country. Their Nov. 9 matchup might come down to which team can get a stop in a big moment. LSU needs to be able to keep Tua off the field or force him into some turnovers.

Ohio State: What happens when the Buckeyes get tested?

Ohio State is making a case to be the best overall team this year. At the same time, though, their schedule to date has been pretty light. Wisconsin boasts the third-best overall FEI, just behind Ohio State. If the Buckeyes get punched in the mouth by the Wisconsin rushing attack, how will they respond? Furthermore, Wisconsin’s defense is holding opponents to 4.8 points per game. What will Justin Fields do in the face of adversity? Michigan’s defense is looming large at the end of the season as well. If the Buckeyes keep it rolling, they’ll be a lock for the College Football Playoff.

Oklahoma: Did the Texas game show how to beat  Jalen Hurts?

Oklahoma needs its offense to be firing on all cylinders to cover up its spotty defense, and until the game against Texas, it looked like Jalen Hurts was unstoppable. Then the Longhorns made him look like an above-average quarterback playing in the best offensive system in college football. The Sooners won’t be tested like they were against Texas until the play the Longhorns in the Big 12 title game. There’s no doubt Texas wants another shot at Hurts and the Sooners.

Clemson: Will Clemson keep giving up big plays on defense?

Clemson boasts the best defense in the country, by FEI, and one might say the Tiger offense is the biggest question mark on this team. Instead, this defense can fall prey to explosive plays. Continuing to stifle opposing offenses — especially the inferior offenses of the ACC — will be key to the Tigers staving off the barbarians at the gates. The past two AP Polls have shown voters are not afraid of bumping down the Tigers for not winning by enough and for not having an impressive in-conference schedule. A stifling defense is as stylish as it gets. The offense will continue to round into form as the season continues.

Wisconsin: Will a one-dimensional offense be enough to win the Big Ten?

If you had to bet your life on one thing heading into this season, it would be Wisconsin’s rushing attack, headed by Heisman candidate Jonathan Taylor. It’s a predictable as a sunrise, barring the one Russell Wilson season (shoutout RVA). What happens when Ohio State shuts down Jonathan Taylor and the rushing attack? Will Jack Coan be able to make enough big throws to keep the offense moving? In previous years, barring, again, Russell Wilson, the quarterback position has not been able to carry this team to a big win.

Penn State: Can Nittany Lions hang with the big boys?

Penn State has looked pretty mediocre this year. Eking out wins against Pittsburgh and Iowa, while only looking impressive against the lightweights of the Big Ten. From what we’ve seen, the Nittany Lions don’t look capable of beating Michigan, let alone Ohio State. Unless this team can figure out how to put away teams they should beat, they’ll be a vulnerable and unconvincing contender.

Georgia: Can the Bulldogs regroup to win the SEC?

That’s pretty much what Georgia needs to do to have any chance at making the College Football Playoff. Let’s assume LSU and Alabama are so close the committee cannot distinguish between the two. That will leave the door open for the second-place team in the SEC West to earn a spot in the Playoff. That is unless the Bulldogs win out and win the conference. If they don’t the loss to the Gamecocks will be their undoing.

Notre Dame: Will they sneak in the back door if enough chaos unfolds?

Notre Dame has looked good-not-great at times this season. Ian Book has been competent for most of the season, and if a few bounces go the other way against Georgia, this is a completely different season for the Irish. Now, all they can do is to hold serve and hope everyone in front of them loses.

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