• Zach Pratt

Zach's Draft Corner: Playoff Predictions, What to watch

Welcome to Zach’s Draft Corner, where it’s always amateur hour.

Week three is in the books, and we are one-third of the way through the portion of the season where we don’t have real rankings. The College Football Playoff Committee will release their first Playoff Rankings after week nine, at which point the AP Poll and the Coach’s Poll will be rendered even more meaningless than they currently are. This week on the Draft Corner, I’m going to give my best educated guess as to what the Playoff picture might look like come December. Before I get into my top four, here are the teams that are certainly contenders, but just missed appearing in my crystal ball.

Virginia Tech University

Virginia Tech's schedule thus far has been surprisingly easy given Florida State's surprising downfall this year. They are a well-coached team with a relatively decent amount of talent on both sides of the ball, but nobody that will jump off the page. It’s tough to leave Virginia Tech out of the playoff picture, as they have the best chance of any of my "just missed" teams to make it to the conference championship game undefeated. The issue there is that Clemson will also likely be undefeated going into conference championship weekend, and only one ACC team will walk out alive. If I have to pick the winner of Clemson and Virginia Tech on a neutral field, based on Virginia Tech’s exclusion from the Playoff, it’s pretty safe to assume who I would pick in that matchup.

Toughest games left: vs. Notre Dame (10/6), vs. Miami (11/17)

Notre Dame University

Notre Dame has enough talent that they can get through their schedule undefeated with a strong defense and some surprising playmakers on offense (see: Chase Claypool, junior wide receiver, #83). Unfortunately, I don't trust quarterback Brandon Wimbush to lead the team through the season, especially with games against tough Virginia Tech and Stanford defenses. They very well could make it through that tough two-week stretch with only one loss (my personal picks are that Notre Dame beats Stanford but loses to Virginia Tech). Unfortunately, the luck won’t be with the Irish, as the committee has repeatedly shown that a one loss team that doesn't win a power five conference championship game will be the first ones left on the cutting room floor when decision time comes (unless two conference champions have two losses and you’re Alabama). Notre Dame is close, but on the outside looking in.

Toughest games left: vs. Stanford (9/29), @Virginia Tech (10/6)

University of Oklahoma

The Sooners have been electric on offense to open the season, but I don't see the overall success lasting the full season. On the road against a relatively tough Iowa State defense, they were able to win by only 10. While that’s no small feat, Oklahoma still has two tough road games against teams better than Iowa State. One is against a team with a slightly better defense and a much better offense than Iowa State in TCU, and one is against a team with an exponentially better offense in West Virginia. I have Oklahoma losing both, leaving them at home for the Big 12 championship game and the Playoffs.

Toughest games left: @TCU (10/20), vs. Oklahoma State (11/10), @West Virginia (11/23)

Louisiana State University

I wanted to pick LSU as my darkhorse fourth team to make the playoffs. I was ready to. They have maybe the most impressive win of the season by beating Auburn on the road. Then I looked at their schedule. All three games are at home, but back-to-back-to-back games against Georgia, Mississippi State, and Alabama is absolutely brutal. They do have a bye in there to rest up, but they are resting up for the juggernaut known as Alabama. The best I can truly see them doing is winning two out of those three games. If one of those wins comes against Alabama, then they could pull it off. If they lose to Alabama, then they can only hope to do what Alabama did last year and make the playoffs without playing in the conference championship game simply because the rest of their wins are so strong (@Auburn, vs. Miami, vs. Georgia, vs. Mississippi State) and the other conference champions are so weak. Ultimately, I think that there will be four conference champions with at most one loss, so Alabama at LSU could be for a playoff spot. I think the winner of the SEC West will beat Georgia in the SEC championship, leaving Georgia at home, as well.

Toughest games left: vs. Georgia (10/13), vs. Mississippi State (10/20), vs. Bama (11/3) in four weeks

Stanford University

Someday, we will get another PAC 12 team in the College Football Playoff. Not this year, though. The PAC 12 is generally seen as the weakest conference, so until the Playoff expands to eight teams, they are the most likely to get left out if all else is equal. Stanford has three very difficult road games left on their schedule, beginning this week against Oregon. Given that I think four conference champions will have at most one loss, the Cardinal would have to win all three of these road games, plus the PAC 12 championship game, to make the College Football Playoff. They are a strong team, but I think they stumble at least once. Stanford will just miss the cut.

Toughest games left: @Oregon (9/22), @Notre Dame (9/29), @Washington (11/3)

The Top Four

West Virginia University

Without further ado, my first team in the Playoffs. My darkhorse, the West Virginia Mountaineers. Led by my QB1 in Will Grier, a good offensive line, plenty of playmakers on the outside, and a defense that is strong enough to at least get them there, I think that West Virginia will win the Big 12. They end the season with three tough games in a row against the conference elite, but given the round-robin nature of the Big 12 schedule, West Virginia can likely get to the championship game even if they lose one of those final games. At a neutral site in Dallas, I would take West Virginia over any other team in the conference, giving them one loss and a conference championship. A one-loss Big 12 champion would make the playoff, meaning West Virginia is in. They may not be there for a long time, but I’m sure Mountaineers from Morgantown will be there for a good time.

Toughest games left: vs. TCU (11/10), @Oklahoma State (11/17), vs. Oklahoma (11/23)

Clemson University

As an Iowa fan, I remember the year they went 12-0 in the regular season and didn't crack the top four in the playoff rankings until the final week of the season, as the national media clamored that Iowa had such an easy schedule and didn't beat anybody. They defeated two teams on the road that finished the season ranked (Wisconsin and Northwestern), as well as two additional power five non-conference teams (Iowa State and Pittsburgh). Ultimately, they lost to Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship game so the point was moot, but it was frustrating that they were seen as having played nobody when their schedule is better than what some other teams manage to put together. Exhibit A, I give you the 2018 Clemson Tigers, who will likely be in the top four from the time the first rankings come out until and will prove that schedules mean absolutely nothing. Their non-conference schedule includes only one power five team (a Texas A&M team that will finish the season unranked and with at least five losses), and the only opponent remaining on their schedule that could even come close to being ranked at the end of the season is Boston College. The playoff spot will likely hinge on the conference championship game against Virginia Tech, as Clemson could sleepwalk through this joke of a schedule. As I said above, I pick Clemson in this matchup, and an undefeated ACC championship will not be staying home in January.

Toughest games left: @Boston College (11/10)

Ohio State University

At this point, I have to go on talent. Particularly, I look at the quarterback and the defense. Dwayne Haskins has been the best quarterback Ohio State has seen since at least Troy Smith. Even better, their defense is full of potential first round picks, plus plenty of day two talent all across the board. The Buckeyes certainly have the most talented team in the Big Ten, and that talent comes at all of the most important positions. Penn State could want some revenge after Ohio State beat them in Columbus last year, and Michigan State and Michigan are never cakewalks. Ultimately, I see Ohio State getting through their schedule undefeated, trouncing whichever of Wisconsin or Iowa is unlucky enough to face them in the Big Ten Championship, and waltzing into the playoff as the two seed.

Toughest games left: @Penn State (9/29), @Michigan State (11/10), vs. Michigan (11/24)

University of Alabama

Raise your hand if you’re shocked. Anyone? Bueller? That’s what I thought. Alabama is another team with some difficult matchups left, but they have such an overwhelming amount of talent that it would be crazy not to pick them to make the playoff. They could lose any of their difficult matchups in a close game, but they could also win by 30. The Crimson Tide have a suffocating defense, a talented offense, and a dynamic quarterback puts Alabama right where they usually always are: in the driver's seat for yet another national championship. It's the boring pick to put them here, but it's also the correct pick.

Toughest games left: @LSU (11/3, after their games vs. Georgia and Mississippi State), @Mississippi State (11/10), vs. Auburn (11/24)

TV Guide

The sheer amount of college games on at any given time can be completely overwhelming. Every week, in the TV Guide section of my column, I will choose the top two games at any given time slot and outline the various prospects you can watch in those games. That way, all you have to do is sit back, relax, and hit the “Previous Channel” button on your remote to toggle between games chock full of pro prospects. Here is your guide for week four (all times Eastern).

Friday, September 21

Florida Atlantic University at University of Central Florida - 7:00 PM, ESPN

For Florida Atlantic, Devin Singletary (junior running back, #5) came into the season with a lot of buzz, but has had three straight weeks of sub-par production. Barring a crazy workout at the Combine, he is handily losing the title of best running back in the country, but still has some time to turn his season around. On defense, Jalen Young (senior safety, #18), Azeez Al-Shaair (senior linebacker, #2), and Shelton Lewis (senior cornerback, #3) are talented, but late round picks at best.

For Central Florida, Trysten Hill (junior defensive tackle, #9) is a very athletic and strong defensive line prospect, eating up blockers while Pat Jasinski (senior linebacker, #56) and Titus Davis (senior outside linebacker, #10) clean up the mess. Kyle Gibson (senior cornerback, #25) has done an admirable job taking over for Mike Hughes as the team’s primary cornerback, but is more of a mid-round pick than the first-round level his predecessor reached. On offense, Tyler Hudanick (senior tackle, #53) and Wyatt Miller (senior tackle, #78) bookend a strong offensive line, and Dredrick Snelson (junior wide receiver, #5) gives the Knights a dangerous weapon on the outside.

Washington State University at University of Southern California - 10:30 PM, ESPN

Washington State normally isn’t a team stocked with talent, but they do have an exciting style of play (Mike Leach is their coach, after all) and a couple of prospects that will still make this game worth tuning into late on a Friday night. Andre Dillard (senior tackle, #60) and Jalen Thompson (junior safety, #34) lead their respective sides of the ball, and are each likely to be drafted somewhere on day two or three.

USC must be pretty well rested after they failed to show up for the game last week against Texas. Facetiousness aside, the Trojans need to pull off a win here to keep their hopes of having a respectable season. With the vast difference in talent, they should be able to win this one. Then again, it’s USC. Tyler Petite (senior tight end, #82) and Daniel Imatorbhebhe (junior tight end, #88) form one of the best tight end duos in the country. Toa Lobendahn (senior guard/center, #50) leads the offensive line with the skill of a tackle but the length of a guard, and will likely stay inside at the next level. Cameron Smith (senior linebacker, #35) and Marvell Tell III (senior safety, #7) could easily be Day 2 picks on defense, while Porter Gustin (senior outside linebacker, #45), Iman Marshall (senior cornerback, #8), and Christian Rector (junior defensive end, #89) could be later round prospects.

Saturday, September 22

University of Georgia at University of Missouri - 12:00 PM, ESPN

Georgia is yet another SEC team that is loaded with talent, although quite a bit of their main talent is younger (e.g., next year’s potential QB1, Jake “From State” Fromm). Deandre Baker (senior cornerback, #18) and J.R. Reed (junior safety, #20) form a strong tandem on the back end and could each be picked before the end of day two. Tyler Clark (junior defensive tackle, #52), Julian Rochester (junior defensive tackle, #5), and Jonathan Ledbetter (senior defensive end, #13) anchor a fierce defensive line, which benefits D'Andre Walker (senior outside linebacker, #15) coming off the edge. Terry Godwin (senior wide receiver, #5) and Calvin Ridley’s younger brother Riley (junior wide receiver, #8) provide the firepower on offense, while Isaac Nauta (junior tight end, #18) gives Georgia a reliable extra blocker and checkdown option.

For Missouri, Drew Lock (senior quarterback, #3) is impressing a lot of scouts, and dissecting a tough Georgia defense could make him a certainty to going the first round. Albert Okwuegbunam (redshirt sophomore tight end, #81) and Kendall Blanton (senior tight end, #11) are dynamic receivers, but it’s Emmanuel Hall (senior wide receiver, #84) who has emerged recently as the best weapon for the Tigers. Paul Adams (senior tackle, #77) will look to keep Lock upright and Corey Fatony (senior punter, #26) off the field. On defense, Terez Hall (senior linebacker, #24) has the athletic profile of an SEC linebacker, but has had difficulty having the production of a star linebacker with the lack of a supporting cast. However, his traits are good enough that he should be drafted next April.

University of Notre Dame at Wake Forest University - 12:00 PM, ABC

Notre Dame’s talent starts with a stifling defense, led by a trio of first-round hopefuls in Jerry Tillery (senior defensive tackle, #99), Julian Love (junior cornerback, #27), and Te'Von Coney (senior linebacker, #4). Drue Tranquill (senior linebacker, #23), Nick Coleman (senior safety, #24), and Shaun Crawford (senior cornerback, #20) all provide valuable support for the Fighting Irish, and are late round prospects. On offense, Notre Dame does have some talent, with Alex Bars (senior tackle, #71), Sam Mustipher (senior guard, #53), Nic Weishar (senior tight end, #82), Alize Mack (senior tight end, #86), and Dexter Williams (senior running back, #2) all hoping to have a strong 2018 and work their way into draft consideration. Chase Claypool (junior wide receiver, #83) has opened eyes recently with his strong route running, speed, and size, and gives Notre Dame a much needed playmaker on the outside. Notre Dame also boasts one of the strongest pairs of specialists in the country, with Tyler Newsome (senior punter, #85) and Justin Yoon (senior kicker, #19) each competing for the top spot at their respective positions.

Wake Forest doesn’t boast that much talent, but the early slate of games is nothing to write home about. Cameron Glenn (senior safety, #2) and Ryan Anderson (senior tackle, #70) have late-round potential, but this game is all about getting a glimpse at Notre Dame’s defensive talent.

Texas A&M University at University of Alabama - 3:30 PM, CBS

Texas A&M has seen a downtick in talent over the past few seasons. However, they still have a few prospects worth mentioning. Colton Prater (junior tackle, #76) has the physical profile and the traits to be a top tackle prospect if he can be more consistent, and will have one of his toughest assignments of the season in squaring off against the Crimson Tide. He will be blocking for Trayveon Williams (junior running back, #5), who is the focal point of the Aggie offense. Daylon Mack (senior defensive tackle, #34) and Kingsley Keke (senior defensive tackle, #8) may not have the off-the-charts athleticism and talent of the Alabama defensive line, but are both strong prospects in their own right who can garner some buzz with a strong performance against one of the top teams in the nation.

The Crimson Tide, meanwhile, have the most talented defense in the country. Deionte Thompson (junior safety, #14), Anfernee Jennings (junior outside linebacker, #33), Raekwon Davis (junior defensive tackle, #99), and Mack Wilson (junior linebacker, #30) all have lived up to the first round chatter they have been receiving thus far. Isaiah Buggs (senior defensive tackle, #49), Terrell Lewis (junior linebacker, #24), and Quinnen Williams (redshirt sophomore defensive end, #92) are all having solid seasons as well, but certainly benefit from the top-end talent playing beside them. On offense, Jonah Williams (junior tackle, #73), Ross Pierschbacher (senior guard/center, #71), and Lester Cotton (senior guard, #66) hope to all come off the board before the end of the second round, and should open plenty of running lanes for Damien Harris (senior running back, #34). Irv Smith, Jr. (junior tight end, #82) has almost matched his 2017 production in the first three games, giving Alabama another weapon to play with. He isn’t draft eligible, but Bovada lists Tua Tagovailoa (sophomore quarterback, #13) as the current Heisman favorite, so he’s worth watching nonetheless.

Kansas State University at University of West Virginia - 3:30 PM, ESPN

Kansas State may not be the sexy name in college football, but they are a technically sound team with an excellent coaching staff. Dalton Risner (senior tackle, #71) is looking like the top tackle in the class with Washington’s Trey Adams losing his season to injury. Scott Frantz (junior tackle, #74) is a respectable prospect on the other end of the line, and they routinely open up outside rushing lanes for Alex Barnes (junior running back, #34). Kendell Adams (senior safety, #21) is the leader of the Wildcats’ defense, although the defense is certainly this team’s weakness.

On the other side, we have my dark-horse Playoff team in West Virginia. Will Grier (senior quarterback, #7) is my QB1 in this draft, but will look to gain that status with others that have a little bit more to do with NFL front offices. Yodny Cajuste (senior tackle, #55) is continuing his strong 2017 season, garnering some first round talk himself. David Sills V (senior wide receiver, #13) and Gary Jennings (senior wide receiver, #12) make a strong set of receivers that are seeing plenty of production with Grier at quarterback.

Clemson University at Georgia Tech University - 3:30 PM, ABC

I know I normally only give two games for any given time frame, but I thought I’d make give you a “triple option” in the afternoon time slot. Lame college football jokes aside, KirVonte Benson (junior running back, #30) had extremely high hopes for a strong junior season, but is out for the season with a knee injury. He is the only member of the offense with hopes of being drafted, as the Yellow Jacket squad really doesn’t have much draftable talent. A.J. Gray (senior safety, #5) hoped to get drafted, but a heart condition in the preseason forced a very early retirement for the promising defensive back.

What makes this game interesting is to see what Clemson’s defense will do when faced with a triple option system that very few teams run. When defending this system, speed, play recognition, and overall awareness of the entire backfield are all incredibly important. Clemson typically doesn’t see many exotic or super fast offenses, so having success against the Georgia Tech running game could help the draft stock of a lot of Tigers. Christian Wilkins (senior defensive tackle, #42), Dexter Lawrence (junior defensive tackle, #90), Clelin Ferrell (junior defensive end, #99), Austin Bryant (senior defensive end, #7), Kendall Joseph (senior linebacker, #34), Mark Fields (senior cornerback, #2), Trayvon Mullen (junior cornerback, #1), and Tre Lamar (junior linebacker, #57) will be tasked with playing disciplined, sound defense, as opposed to their attacking style they have become accustomed to. On offense, Mitch Hyatt (senior tackle, #75) looks to work his way into the top tackle conversation, while Hunter Renfrow (senior wide receiver, #13) and Kelly Bryant (senior quarterback, #2) hope to work their way into draftable conversations. Bryant may be forced to switch positions, as Clemson still works in true freshman Trevor Lawrence (#16) throughout the game, and you can see that the difference in arm talent between the two favors the 5-star frosh. Greg Huegel (senior kicker, #92) is another kicking prospect who has a chance to make it into the NFL with a strong senior season, although he is only 3-for-5 on field goals in his first three games.

Texas Tech University at Oklahoma State University - 7:00 PM, Fox Sports 1

This will be a good game to eat over dinner before the real games start at 8:00 and 8:30. If you are with someone who isn’t excited about football but does get excited about attractive men, Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury is your answer to getting them to watch a game with you. Dakota Allen (senior linebacker, #40), Justus Parker (junior safety, #31), Jordyn Brooks (junior linebacker, #1), and Octavious Morgan (senior cornerback, #5) form a defensive quartet that has a bit of talent, but can’t make up for the extreme lack of talent everywhere else. Madison Akamnonu (junior tackle, #58) is a large and athletic specimen on the offensive line, but the Red Raiders are sure to be overmatched in this game.

Oklahoma State is having a down year as far as draftable talent, but they still have plenty of offensive firepower. The key name to know is Justice Hill (junior running back, #5), who is the type of explosive talent that can take it to the house on any play. Jalen McCleskey (senior wide receiver, #1) is looking to take over the receiving game from recent draftees James Washington and Marcell Ateman, with former walk-on Taylor Cornelius (senior quarterback, #14) strongly taking over the mantel left by Mason Rudolph. Trey Carter (senior defensive tackle, #99) is the leader of the defense, but a matchup with Texas Tech is unlikely to play to his strengths of stopping the run.

Stanford University at University of Oregon - 8:00 PM, ABC

Stanford’s Bryce Love (senior running back, #20) came into the season with such high hopes, but has been inconsistent and banged up through the first three games of the season. He will hope to get back on track against Oregon. Meanwhile, my favorite receiver sleeper, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (junior wide receiver, #19), is looking to maintain his dominating season and get into second-round consideration. Kaden Smith (junior tight end, #82), Nate Herbig (junior guard, #63), Jesse Burkett (senior center, #73), A.T. Hall (senior tackle, #75), Brandon Fanaika (senior guard, #71), and Trenton Irwin (senior wide receiver, #2) all hope to continue their strong seasons. On defense, Bobby Okereke (senior linebacker, #20) and Alijah Holder (senior cornerback, #13) will be tested against an Oregon team that is always dynamic and athletic. Jake Bailey (senior punter, #14) is one of the best punting prospects in the nation, averaging 48.8 yards per punt with a long of 66 on the season.

Oregon has plenty of talent in their own right, and will look to take over the PAC 12 North Division with a win against favorite Stanford. Justin Herbert (junior quarterback, #10) will get his first true test of his junior season, and a strong performance here could get him into the first round conversation. Jake Hanson (junior tackle, #55) and Calvin Throckmorton (junior guard/center, #54) lead a line that will try to give him plenty of time in the pocket, as well as open up holes for Tony Brooks-James (senior running back, #20). On defense, Jalen Jelks (senior edge, #97) is one of the nation’s premiere pass rushers, with Troy Dye (junior linebacker, #35) and Justin Hollins (senior outside linebacker, #11) patrolling the middle of the field.

University of Wisconsin at University of Iowa - 8:30 PM, FOX

This is the game of the week if you enjoy old-fashioned, smash mouth football where the game will be won in the trenches. Wisconsin had what should have been an easy non-conference schedule, but saw their Playoff hopes dwindle after a loss to Brigham Young University at home in Madison. As they look to recover, Wisconsin’s elite offensive line (every one of them is a prospect, so just watch and enjoy) will face by far their toughest test so far this season in an Iowa team that is second in the nation with only 209 yards allowed per game (42.0 per game on the ground) and is fourth in the nation with 4 sacks per game. If they are able to open holes for Jonathan Taylor (sophomore running back, #23) and provide a clean pocket for Alex Hornibrook (junior quarterback, #12) to throw to an overall underwhelming group of targets. Wisconsin’s defense will have to step up, but they have plenty of talent with T.J. Edwards (senior linebacker, #53), Andrew Van Ginkel (senior linebacker, #17), Olive Sagapolu (senior nose tackle, #99), and Ryan Connelly (senior linebacker, #43).

On the other side, Iowa is led by the top tight end in the nation in Noah Fant (junior tight end, #87). Nate Stanley (junior quarterback, #4) and Nick Easley (senior wide receiver, #84) will look to battle Wisconsin in the air, while Keegan Render (senior center, #69) and Ross Reynolds (senior guard, #59) provide leadership on an offensive line with true sophomores at the tackle positions. On defense, Anthony Nelson (junior defensive end, #98), Matt Nelson (senior defensive end, #96), and Parker Hesse (senior defensive end, #40) all are capable of causing disruption in the backfield. Just like Wisconsin’s offensive line will be tested, this will be the best offensive line that the Iowa defensive line will face all season. This singular matchup will likely define the overall winner of this game, as well as the Big Ten West Division in general. Amani Hooker (junior safety, #27) and Jake Gervase (senior safety, #30) form a solid safety duo in the secondary. Miguel Recinos (senior kicker, #91) is a generally reliable kicker, and could work his way into draft consideration with another strong season.

If you really want to, Arizona State at Washington kicks off at 10:30 PM, and could be a decently fun matchup. I wouldn’t worry about it, though. Watch highlights on Sunday. The 49ers play early this week, so get some rest.

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