Here’s the thing about the College Football Playoff: Everybody is pretty good at everything. Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, and Washington are the four best teams in the country, and there was only a little bit of debate about that. Each team has an outstanding offense led by a really good quarterback, a menacing defense that’s both explosive and consistent, and a coach among the smartest minds in all of football.
Of football’s final four, Alabama is clearly the best team, and Washington is probably the worst, but we’ve already entered into the 99.9th percentile, so ranking the four teams is akin to differentiating between decimal points. So, in an attempt to make sense of the Fiesta Bowl, the Peach Bowl, and the creatively named College Football Playoff National Championship, we’ve broken down the four teams into individual units — four per team on offense, three per team on defense, plus one more each for special teams and the coaching staffs — and ranked them all, from 36 to one.
36. Clemson’s Special Teams
Clemson’s special teams are pretty much the only average unit in the playoff. Here, being average makes you last.
35. Ohio State’s Wide Receivers
Noah Brown did this.
But the Buckeyes’ best WR is Curtis Samuel, who’s kind of a running back.
34. Clemson’s Running Backs
The Tigers have Wayne Gallman, who’s really good. But every other team has multiple quality running backs, so unless Clemson clones Gallman, it has the worst RB group.
33. Alabama’s Special Teams
Yes, lol, it’s Alabama’s special teams, and the Kick Six happened.
But remember, they won the championship last year because of an onside kick.
32. Washington’s Offensive Line
It allowed 21 sacks this year — tied for 36th in the country, not bad! Now facing some of the best defensive lines in college football — not good!
31. Washington’s Special Teams
Explosive wide receivers John Ross and Dante Pettis are the return men, but we’ll talk about them more later. Honestly, the only reason they’re higher than Alabama is because their kicker is named Cameron Van Winkle. Don’t sleep on that guy.
30. Washington’s Running Backs
Myles Gaskin ran for 1,339 yards this year, which is the most of any running back in the playoff. This group would be the best unit for most teams in the country.
28, 29. Washington’s Linebackers and Defensive Line
They both do a good job, and there’s not much to say about either group beyond that.
27. Clemson’s Linebackers
Ben Boulware isn’t the best linebacker in the playoff, but he’s the most likely to make somebody on the other team really mad: He choked Lamar Jackson, clotheslined BC’s quarterback into the Stone Age (it was a clean hit), and suplexed a Syracuse player (it was not a clean hit).
26. Washington’s Quarterback(s)
Jake Browning had impressive passing numbers this season: He threw for 3,280 yards with 42 touchdowns and seven interceptions. But I think a lot of that has to do with a hypertalented receiving corps. Browning’s the only quarterback in the playoff who doesn’t pose a major running threat, and, as you can infer from the way the rankings are unfolding, every secondary left standing is ridiculously good.
25. Alabama’s Running Backs
Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough aren’t Heisman winners like last season’s back, Derrick Henry, but they’re still Alabama running backs: big, fast, and hard to bring down.
24. Alabama’s Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart aren’t as studly as Amari Cooper, but they’re Alabama wide receivers: fast, tall, and capable of making your jaw drop from time to time. Plus, O.J. Howard is the nation’s best tight end; he’s a great blocker and, as Clemson found out in last season’s championship, a receiving threat as well.
26. Ohio State’s Quarterback(s)
Despite a season-ending injury against Michigan, J.T. Barrett’s spectacular performance two years ago got Ohio State to the playoff, and now he finally gets to play in one. But, oddly, he’s a little bit worse than he was as a freshman. In the team’s final two games against Michigan State and Michigan, he went 25-for-54 for 210 yards with a touchdown and an interception, but he did manage 100 yards rushing in both games. I’m not sure that’s a positive: Barrett’s a good runner, but OSU’s offense stagnates when the coaching staff calls a bunch of designed runs for him, as they did in those two games.
22. Ohio State’s Special Teams
Sure, the most notable moment of Ohio State’s season was a major special teams failure.
So you probably saw that, and kicker Tyler Durbin’s two missed field goals against Michigan. But he missed only three field goals all season. Aussie Cam Johnston is perhaps the best punter in the country. And in a game between evenly matched teams, those two guys might make the difference.
21. Ohio State’s Defensive Line
Although current OSU defensive end Nick Bosa is not as good as his older brother, former OSU defensive end Joey Bosa, he’s still pretty good! Plus, the Buckeyes have the best stuff rate in the nation. They stop more rushes at or behind the line of scrimmage than anybody else does. OSU’s pass rush isn’t great, but, as we’ll discuss in a bit, the secondary is elite, so it’s not that big of a problem. If the guys up front stop the run — and they’re maybe the best in college football at doing that — OSU’s in good shape.
20. Alabama’s Secondary
If Bama has a defensive weakness, it’s the back four, especially after the season-ending injury safety Eddie Jackson suffered in late October. It’s still not much of a weakness! Minkah Fitzpatrick and Marlon Humphrey should be the best 1–2 cornerback combo in college football, although Fitzpatrick has been playing a bit of safety since Jackson’s injury. (He’s good there too.)
19. Clemson’s Secondary
Cordrea Tankersley is the best cornerback in the country, per Pro Football Focus. Clemson also had 18 picks this year, which is tied for eighth in the country … but third among the four teams in the playoff.
18. Clemson’s Coaching Staff
I think I have them fourth just because I have the hardest time picturing young, goofy Dabo Swinney hoisting the national championship trophy. He probably will someday, but until I see it happen it’ll seem weird.
But Clemson has a phenomenal coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Brent Venables won the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach. At this point, we’re just differentiating between different sublevels of greatness.
17. Clemson’s Offensive Line
The Tigers allowed only 14 sacks despite an offense that relied heavily on letting Deshaun Watson drop back and create. Clemson had 535 passing attempts, eighth in the country, and the next-closest playoff team was Ohio State, which was 78th in the country. That gave Clemson the fourth-best adjusted sack rate in college football, and the best in the country on passing downs.
16. Washington’s Wide Receivers
(See what I mean about Browning’s success sometimes being due to the wide receivers?)
Dante Pettis is human — Ross had 17 receiving touchdowns, Pettis had only 14 — but he’s a very good human.
15. Alabama’s Quarterback(s)
I’m so scared of what Jalen Hurts is going to become. As a true freshman, he made Alabama’s offense more dynamic than it was last season with a fifth-year senior QB and a Heisman RB. And he’s probably going to get better.
Of course, there’s also reason to wonder whether Hurts’s inexperience will show in the most important game — or games — of his young career. But while this was a down year for the SEC, it still presented Hurts with plenty of tough defenses, including three teams with a higher defensive S&P+ than his first-round opponent, Washington. LSU in particular made him look pretty bad throwing — he went 10-for-19 with 107 yards and an interception — but he made up for it by running for 114 yards and a touchdown.
Each of these teams would be pretty screwed if its starting QB got hurt, but Alabama might be especially screwed: Both of the Tide’s backup quarterbacks have decided to transfer after the season. Although they’ve decided to stick around through the playoff, could you blame them if they’ve already checked out?
14. Ohio State’s Running Backs
I wasn’t sure where to slot in Curtis Samuel, OSU’s Brooklyn-bred wide receiver/RB/H-back/whatever. (I live in Brooklyn, so I need to take every chance I can to emphasize that my beloved borough has raised many, many important people who are not Lena Dunham.) But whatever Samuel is, he is indispensable. After all, he won The Game:
Maybe he’ll get only five or six carries, and maybe they’ll all come on jet sweeps, but he’s the most dynamic runner in the playoff. Meanwhile, freshman Mike Weber is the actual workhorse, and he’s pretty damn great too, rushing for 1,072 yards on 6.1 per carry.
13. Washington’s Coaching Staff
Remember that Boise State Fiesta Bowl?
Opponents should be very scared of whatever kind of ridiculous stuff Chris Petersen will be able to whip up with a full month to plan.
12. Ohio State’s Linebackers
I didn’t think anything could possibly make me happier than the simple existence of a person named “Raekwon McMillan.” Except, Rae somehow manages to cook up magnificent mayhem from the LB spot as well as the Chef ever did behind the mic — and that makes me even happier.
11. Clemson’s Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
I don’t know how or why Clemson turned into a WR factory. Is it the allure of playing under Swinney, who caught seven passes in three years at Alabama? Whatever the answer, here we are. Much of Clemson’s passing success is due to the tremendous talent of Watson, but it certainly helps that he’s throwing almost exclusively to studs. With 84 catches for 1,171 yards, Mike Williams is the standout, but Artavis Scott, Ray-Ray McCloud, and Deon Cain were all highly touted recruits who are panning out.
10. Washington’s Secondary
Despite playing in the pass-friendly Pac-12, the Huskies have somehow held opponents to under 200 passing yards per game. Safety Budda Baker is a freakin’ delight, and he was joined by cornerback Sidney Jones on the all-Pac 12 first team, while safety Taylor Rapp won Pac-12 defensive freshman of the year. Anyway, hope you liked seeing Washington’s name on this list, because that’s all we have to say about the Huskies.
9. Ohio State’s Secondary
The Buckeyes were one of only five teams to allow a less than 50 percent completion rating on opposing passes. And they had nearly twice as many interceptions (19) as touchdowns allowed (10). Neither of those things is normal.
Nobody knew who Malik Hooker was a few months ago, but now he’s a unanimous All-American at safety, a ball hawk extraordinaire with the speed and instincts to turn seemingly great passes into huge mistakes.
8. Ohio State’s Coaching Staff
Urban Meyer kinda tends to do well in these types of scenarios.
7. Alabama’s Offensive Line
Bama didn’t have a 1,000-yard rusher this year. You know what it did have? Four 500-yard rushers. The Tide finished eighth in college football in yards per carry and 10th in total rushing yards. Left tackle Cam Robinson won the Outland Award for the best interior lineman in the country and will likely be the first OL off the board in next year’s NFL draft.
6. Clemson’s Quarterback(s)
Deshaun Watson is probably the most important individual left standing.
In last season’s playoff, we saw how incredible he can be: First, he ran for 145 yards and a touchdown against Oklahoma. Then he threw for 405 yards and four touchdowns while adding 73 rushing yards against Alabama. He’s almost certainly the most talented quarterback remaining, and, well, quarterbacks are important.
At the same time, he can also hurt Clemson. Watson threw 15 picks this year, six more than any other quarterback in the playoff. Three of those came in a one-point loss to Pitt; another three came in a tight win against Louisville.
Watson’s dynamic enough to win Clemson the playoff, but a few bad throws could lose it for the Tigers.
5. Clemson’s Defensive Line
With Christian Wilkins outside and Carlos Watkins inside, the Tigers boast one of the better CW couples since Gossip Girl went off the air. (I loved that show.) Clemson had 46 sacks this year, the third most in the country, and even if we excluded all the sacks by linebackers and defensive backs, the Tigers would be tied for 30th.
4. Ohio State’s Offensive Line
The best matchup of the playoffs will be fought in the trenches of the Fiesta Bowl, with Clemson’s beastly D-line going up against Ohio State’s incredible O-line. Pat Elflein is the best center in the country, and right guard Billy Price was named an AFCA All-American. OSU led the nation in adjusted line yardage, which essentially tells us how responsible the O-line was for a run play’s success or failure.
And that does it for the non-Bama portion of this broadcast …
3. Alabama’s Defensive Line
Defensive tackle Jonathan Allen was possibly the best player in college football this season, but he’s not a quarterback, so he didn’t win the Heisman. He’s got the mass of a tackle, the explosion of an edge rusher, and the tackling consistency of a middle linebacker. I compared him two weeks ago to a killer whale, and I do not regret it.
Bama’s run defense is absolutely ruthless. They allow just 2.03 yards per carry, over three-quarters of a yard fewer than the second-best team, Houston, which allowed 2.91 yards per carry. In 13 games, the Tide allowed just 824 rushing yards. The team with the second-fewest yards allowed is Houston, which gave up 1,175 in just 13 games. They also rank first in virtually every advanced run defense statistic, such as rushing success rate and adjusted line yardage.
I know what you’re thinking: The defensive line isn’t solely to credit for Alabama’s run success. Surely the linebackers had something to do with that, right? Well …
2. Alabama’s Linebackers
Reuben Foster is the best linebacker in college football, and he rightfully won the Butkus Award for that honor. But outside linebacker Tim Williams leads the team in sacks (tied with Allen). Both guys should be picked in the first half of the first round of the NFL draft — Fox Sports has them going no. 4 and no. 2, SB Nation has them going no. 2 and no. 6, and Mel Kiper has them fourth and seventh on his big board.
With those two leading the way, Alabama ranked first in the country in LB havoc rate, which measures “how much hell a defense is raising.” They got a tackle-for-loss, pass defensed, or forced a fumble on 10 percent of opposing plays — over twice the national average. Bama will be without starting middle linebacker Shaun Dion Hamilton, who tore his ACL in the SEC championship game, and that’s a big loss, but he was the fourth-most important of Bama’s four starting linebackers. Even with an injury, I think this is the best unit of players in the playoff.
1. Alabama’s Coaching Staff
I don’t consider Alabama’s coaching staff the most important thing in the playoff solely due to Nick Saban. I say it because of the behemoth he’s built behind him.
Nearly everything in college football is regulated to ensure a level playing field: You can give out only 85 scholarships, players at bowls can receive a maximum of $550 in gifts, players can participate in only 20 hours of required athletic activities per week. So when teams find an unregulated area, they exploit it. There’s no limit on what you can spend on facilities, so Clemson’s adding a damn theme park to its football facilities.
The NCAA limits teams to a head coach, nine assistants, and two graduate assistants. But there’s no limit on how many support staff members you can have. Nick Saban pioneered the idea of using this to add extra coaches, although they’re not technically coaches since they can’t interact with players. Alabama reportedly has between 10 and 15 non-coach coaches. One of these is Steve Sarkisian, who will certainly help Bama prepare to play Washington; he was head coach of the Huskies until 2013 and recruited many of the program’s older players.
With two big matchups left in the season, Alabama has the biggest, smartest crew of analysts available to consider how best to win those games. They will give that game plan to Saban, the best coach of the current era in college football, and he will ask the most talented team in college football to execute. It’s not a bad idea.