Conference championship week has come and gone, and the College Football Playoff is finally set in stone after weeks of speculation and debate.
As expected, Alabama and Florida gave us a high-scoring affair, with the Crimson Tide coming out on top, but the rest of the slate gave us quite a few surprises: Northwestern kept it close with Ohio State for a while, and Clemson put the beatdown on Notre Dame.
Now that the first run of our analysis is finalized and available in PFF's CFB Premium Stats+, we get to fill you in on everything you might have missed while providing further analysis on this week’s conference title games. Here, we present to you the PFF Team of the Week and player awards for the conference championship games only, along with a quick reaction to the 2020-21 College Football Playoff.
COLLEGE FOOTBALL PLAYOFF REACTION
Entering Championship week, the most likely outcome seemed to be an Alabama and Ohio State win along with a somewhat close Clemson win over Notre Dame to give us those four teams in the 2020-21 CFP.
The first two occurred as planned, but the Clemson-Notre Dame clash did not, as Trevor Lawrence and the Tigers blew the doors off the Irish with a 34-10 victory. Fortunately for Notre Dame, the committee still awarded them that fourth and final playoff spot.
The Irish will now have to go up against a three-headed monster of Mac Jones, DeVonta Smith and Najee Harris, one of the best QB-WR-RB trios we have ever seen at the college level. Those three superstars have been the key reason why the Crimson Tide leads the FBS with a 59.8% successful pass rate this season. Not only is that the best of 2020, but it is also a full percentage point higher than the previous record that was set by Joe Burrow’s LSU Tigers in 2019.
Speaking of Mr. Burrow, Jones is also on pace to break the record the former LSU quarterback set in 2019 for best single-season PFF grade, and his top target, Smith, is on pace to do the same at his position. In other words, it’s going to take a lot of points and a perfect night from Ian Book to have a shot at taking down the Crimson Tide.
Book will have to play as he did in the first showdown against Clemson — and then some — to give the Irish a fighting chance. Book posted the best passing grade of his career against a Power 5 defense (90.7) in that game. But, for perspective, Jones has eclipsed that grade five times this season alone.
Book was unafraid to take shots downfield in that win over Clemson. He threw the ball 14.1 yards downfield on average, and he handled Clemson’s blitz exceptionally well. It was just a perfect day by Book’s standards, but those standards will have to be raised significantly if the Irish are to have any chance of success.
Last season, we got one of the best semifinals in the College Football Playoff era between the Clemson Tigers and the Ohio State Buckeyes. We now get to experience that again this season. This time around, it’ll all be about Justin Fields and Ohio State seeking revenge for that six-point loss to Clemson that featured a controversial game-changing fumble call and a crushing end-zone interception to end the game.
The Buckeyes are fresh off one of their worst passing performances of recent memory. Before Saturday's Big Ten Championship Game, there had been only one time in the Fields era of Ohio State football in which they failed to generate positive expected points added (EPA) per pass play (vs. Indiana in Week 12 this year), and they were barely under zero in that game at -0.03.
That wasn’t the case on Saturday against the Wildcats, as Ohio State produced -0.55 EPA per passing play on Saturday night, making it their least efficient passing outing in over five years.
The Ohio State rushing attack, which was led by Trey Sermon and his record-setting day, is what made it a non-issue in the end. The Buckeyes had the best successful run rate we have seen all season long from any team (78.6%).
Clemson is a different breed than Northwestern, as we all know, so the Buckeyes just aren’t going to be able to get away with that kind of passing offense. Not having Chris Olave’s presence out there clearly made things more difficult for Fields and Ohio State, so Olave's situation is something to closely monitor in the coming days.
Ohio State struggled to get the ball rolling at times, but Clemson certainly didn’t against a stout Notre Dame defense. The Tigers had the second-most efficient offense of all the teams playing in a conference championship this past weekend, with Lawrence making plays through the air and on the ground.
Lawrence busted off three explosive runs of 10 or more yards on 10 designed runs on Saturday. And his legs played a big role in Clemson knocking off Ohio State in last year’s playoff, as he scampered for a game-changing 67-yard touchdown run near the end of the first half to make a 16-14 game at halftime.
PFF TEAM OF THE WEEK
QB: Mac Jones, Alabama
RB: Trey Sermon, Ohio State
RB: Najee Harris, Alabama
WR: Trea Shropshire, UAB
WR: Alec Pierce, Cincinnati
WR: Antonio Nunn, Buffalo
TE: Kyle Pitts, Florida
LT: Thayer Munford, Ohio State
LG: Andrew Smith Jr., UAB
C: Creed Humphrey, Oklahoma
RG: Tommy Kraemer, Notre Dame
RT: Sidney Wells, UAB
DI: Haskell Garrett, Ohio State
DI: Noah Wright, San Jose State
EDGE: Will Anderson Jr., Alabama
EDGE: Zach Harrison, Ohio State
LB: Kana’i Mauga, USC
LB: Issac Slade-Matautia, Oregon
CB: Cameron Mitchell, Northwestern
CB: Nick McCloud, Notre Dame
S: Laanden Zanders, Clemson
S: Josh Proctor, Ohio State
FLEX D: Jamal Hill, Oregon
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK
The Alabama quarterback might have just etched his name on the Heisman Trophy with his elite outing in the 2020 SEC Championship Game.
Jones recorded a single-game PFF grade above 90.0 for the sixth time this season, and it was perhaps his best game of the year from a downfield passing perspective.
The Bama signal-caller was late on one deep shot to a wide-open John Metchie III that should have been a touchdown, but that was truly the only bad downfield throw of the night. He completed 12-of-16 throws that traveled over 10 yards downfield on Saturday, racking up 249 yards and three scores in the process.
Jones now has a season-long PFF grade of 95.3, eclipsing the previous PFF College record set by the 2019 Heisman winner, Joe Burrow (94.9). And last year, Burrow broke the previous record that was jointly held by Oklahoma quarterbacks Kyler Murray (2018) and Baker Mayfield (2017), who each earned a single-season PFF grade of 94.6 and proceeded to win the Heisman.
At this point, the only other player who should even be in the conversation for the prestigious award is Jones' top receiver, DeVonta Smith. But given that Jones is on pace to have the highest-graded season we have ever seen at the quarterback position — and that he did it with no cupcake non-conference games, no less — he should rightfully be the winner.
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK
LB Kana’i Mauga, USC
The USC linebacker but on an absolute show in Friday night's conference title game against Oregon, posting a 90.5 PFF grade that topped his previous single-game career-high by over 17 grading points.
Mauga’s best play of the day was the interception he came up with at the end of the first half when he dropped into a zone that covered the vertical seam and subsequently returned the pick for 34 yards to put USC in Oregon territory. USC ended up missing the field goal, but the linebacker at least gave them a chance to put points on the board.
On top of that, Mauga forced another incompletion and tallied eight total defensive stops. USC may have fallen short of the Pac-12 crown, but it was a career-night for Mauga.
TRUE FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK
Edge Will Anderson Jr., Alabama
Anderson, a five-star recruit and the 17th-ranked recruit nationally according to 247Sports, was one of the many crown jewels of Nick Saban’s 2020 recruiting class. The freshman earned a starting role right away for the Crimson Tide and had consistently been a force in both facets throughout the regular season en route to a 78.2 PFF grade before taking on Florida.
Then, in the 2020 SEC Championship Game, Anderson had by far the best game of his young college career. He earned an 86.3 PFF grade and secured PFF Team of the Week honors.
Anderson came in clutch in the fourth quarter with a big-time strip-sack fumble that put Alabama in the red zone. Then, a few minutes later, the first-year edge defender forced a goal-line fumble that would have given the Crimson Tide the ball, while up by 14, with just over six minutes left to play, but it was negated by an offsides penalty. This game brought his season pressure total to 52, more than double that of any other true freshman in 2020. It was his sixth game of the season in which he produced five or more total pressures.
OFFENSIVE LINE OF THE WEEK
The Blazers' offensive line was the only unit that earned a grade above 70.0 in both the run game and the passing game. And it wasn’t just one or two linemen anchoring the group, either. Among the 18 teams playing in a conference title game this weekend, UAB had four of its five starters rank in the top two at their respective position in PFF grade.
Andrew Smith Jr. had perhaps the best performance of the entire bunch. Smith started at left guard due to a reshuffle, and even though he'd never played there before in college, he went on to post a career-high PFF grade (78.7). Smith lost just one of his 27 pass-blocking reps and had more positively graded run blocks than any guard this week.
SECRET SUPERSTAR OF THE WEEK
Northwestern’s run defense was subpar, to say the least, but the coverage unit looked as good as it has been all season. Entering the 2020 Big Ten Championship Game, Northwestern hadn't allowed positive expected points added (EPA) per play in any of its games, and that was unchanged after going toe-to-toe with Justin Fields and the Buckeyes.
Redshirt freshman Cameron Mitchell, who entered the week with only 70 career snaps to his name, was a big reason why. Mitchell wasn’t just the highest-graded defensive back on the field on Saturday; he was the highest-graded defensive back of the weekend's slate.
The freshman hadn’t played any more than 16 snaps in a single game this year before the title game and virtually saw no time at outside corner in his limited action. That all changed when starting corner Greg Newsome II had to exit the game due to injury. Mitchell then proceeded to play 40 snaps at outside corner in his place — 17 of which were coverage reps — and he didn’t allow any of his four targets to be caught. He forced two incompletions and came away with one interception.
PLAY OF THE WEEK
With no Justyn Ross or Joe Ngata, Trevor Lawrence and the Clemson Tigers desperately needed one of their young wide receivers to step up. But while Seniors Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell have provided stable play, the group has been meek after those two.
But then Clemson finally saw one of its underclassmen step up on Saturday: 2020 four-star and 69th-ranked recruit E.J. Williams. He was the highest-graded Clemson receiver on the day (81.1), and he connected on three explosive receptions of 15-plus yards with Trevor Lawrence, one of which was an incredible one-handed snag on a pivotal third down.
ABSURD ONE-HANDED CATCH BY EJ WILLIAMS ???? pic.twitter.com/VmTzXGFBfX
— The Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) December 19, 2020
That catch extended a Clemson drive that ultimately ended with a touchdown and a 31-3 lead that was too much for the Irish to overcome.
The 6-foot-3 true freshman has that massive catch radius and excellent body control that Dabo Swinney loves to have on the field. Lawrence and the Tigers will need Williams to continue to make plays like this in the CFP to help their quest for a National Championship.