News & Analysis

College Football Week 12: PFF Team of the Week, key takeaways, player awards and more

Nov 21, 2020; Athens, Georgia, USA; Georgia Bulldogs quarterback JT Daniels (18) throws a touchdown pass against the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the first half at Sanford Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Northwestern upset Wisconsin for a clear path to the 2020 Big Ten Title Game, Ohio State kept Indiana from a historic comeback, Justin Fields had the worst game of his career, Cincinnati remained undefeated after facing its toughest test of the season, Georgia’s offense looked good for a change and DeVonta Smith showed once again why he is the best WR in the country.

A lot happened this week in college football, and 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 games. Here, we present to you the PFF Team of the Week, along with our big takeaways and player awards from Week 12 of the 2020 college football season.

Editor's note:  PFF's CFB Premium Stats+ subscribers can view player grades, advanced statistics, positional snap counts and more. Subscribe today for access!

PFF TEAM OF THE WEEK

Offense

QB: JT Daniels, Georgia
RB: Xavier Williams, Kent State
RB: Rhamondre Stevenson, Oklahoma
WR: DeVonta Smith, Alabama
WR: Chris Autman-Bell, Minnesota
WR: Sam Pinckney, Georgia State
TE: Hunter Kampmoyer, Oregon
LT: Brady Christensen, BYU
LG: Luke Griffin, Missouri
C: Fernando Frye, East Carolina
RG: Jordan Meridith, Western Kentucky
RT: Darian Kinnard, Kentucky

Defense

DI: Dion Novil, North Texas
DI: Alim McNeil, North Carolina State
EDGE: Jonathon Cooper, Ohio State
EDGE: Gabriel Murphy, North Texas
LB: Zaven Collins, Tulsa
LB: Xavier Smith, East Carolina
CB: Greg Newsome II, Northwestern
CB: Roger Cray, Western Kentucky
S: Larry Brooks, Tulane
S: Smoke Monday, Auburn
FLEX D: Talanoa Tufanga, USC

BIG TAKEAWAYS

There are no worries about Florida’s offense showing up in the SEC title game, but it's time to start worrying about the defense

Kyle Trask has been flat-out on fire as of late. The second-year starter posted an 89.4 passing grade against Vanderbilt on Saturday, which has helped form an FBS-best 93.7 passing grade over his last three games.

Florida’s offense has been cooking all season long. The playcalling, structure, supporting cast and now Trask himself have formed the second-most efficient passing attack in the Power 5 behind only Alabama. There’s no question the offense can go toe-to-toe with the best. On the other hand, the defense looks like it may get fried against a team like Bama.

Up until Week 12, Vandy had one of the most lethargic passing attacks in the SEC. Led by true freshman Ken Seals, they generated -0.11 expected points added (EPA) per pass while the quarterback had a poor passing grade of 59.6. Then, against Florida, they had the most efficient passing offense by a Seals-led passing offense this season.

Offense wins championships, but that doesn’t mean Florida can afford to field a defense that's been, up until this point, a liability. The entire unit will have to step up if they are to have any shot at taking down the Alabama Crimson Tide.

Cincinnati and BYU continued on their undefeated track, but if they want to challenge Notre Dame’s CFP spot, they have to schedule a game against each other for Dec. 5.

The Bearcats faced their toughest test of the year on Saturday against the UCF Knights and came out of the Bounce House with a W to extend their undefeated record to 8-0. Meanwhile, Zach Wilson and the BYU Cougars did as expected and blew out North Alabama by 51 points to go 9-0 on the year.

No non-Power 5 team has ever claimed a spot in the College Football Playoff, yet these two teams actually have a shot at doing so this season. Of course, that's entirely dependent on whether the committee values their resumes over that of a team such as Notre Dame, who could win against UNC, Syracuse and Wake Forest to close out their season en route to the 2020 ACC Championship Game.

If they were to lose that game to Clemson with Trevor Lawrence, there’s still a very good chance the Irish get in over a team like Cincinnati or BYU with the way the cards are stacked right now. But that could all change if the Bearcats and the Cougars schedule a game against one another for Dec. 5. That date has recently opened up on UC’s schedule after the AAC was forced to move a few games around due to Covid-19. It seems highly likely that the winner of that game would be a shoo-in for that fourth and final CFP spot. Not to mention, Cincinnati’s defense versus BYU’s offense would make for a great matchup.

On Saturday, Cincinnati held Dillon Gabriel and UCF to negative EPA per pass play mark for the first time of the 2020 season. Gabriel had previously been ripping defenses with his deep ball, and while the Bearcats had a couple of DPIs on these deep shots, they kept him in check overall by allowing just two of the eight non-penalized deep passes to be caught for 66 yards. As they did that, Wilson continued to shine at quarterback for BYU and now has a season passing grade of 94.7 after Saturday. That’s on pace to be the best single-season grade of the PFF College era.

Cincinnati and BYU — let’s do the right thing. Scheduling a game against one another would all but force the committee to put the winner into the CFP. And if they didn’t, the CFP expansion chatter would continue to increase. Who doesn’t like some chaos?

OTHER NOTES/OBSERVATIONS

  • DeVonta Smith now has a 94.2 receiving grade this season and is on pace to break Amari Cooper’s record (93.3) set in 2014.
  • Northwestern again put on the clamps in Week 12. They held Wisconsin to the fourth-lowest EPA per pass play figure of the week and now ranks second in the FBS since Week 8 in team coverage grade.
  • Ohio State’s passing offense was the worst Justin Fields-led attack they have ever fielded. The Buckeyes QB failed to generate positive EPA per pass for the first time in his career and had three or more turnover-worthy plays in a single game for only the second time (2019 CFP Semifinal vs. Clemson).
  • Michael Penix Jr. tied for the most pass attempts under pressure in a single game this year with 27, yet he still managed to record five big-time throws to just one turnover-worthy play en route to an 80.6 passing grade. Penix now leads all Power 5 QBs in big-time throws since Week 8 by five (20).
  • Oregon quarterback Tyler Shough has shown a lot of growth these past couple of weeks. He has led the Ducks to the most efficient passing offense in the Pac-12 in that span while ranking second in the conference in passing grade at 79.5.
  • Rondale Moore made his 2020 debut on Friday and got fed 20 targets, but he failed to record a single broken tackle.
  • App State held Coastal Carolina to their worst successful pass play (plays that generate positive EPA) rate of the season. Still, the Chanticleers were able to keep their undefeated season alive thanks to two late interceptions in the fourth quarter.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK

QB JT Daniels, Georgia

Not only did Daniels have the most surprising performance of the night, but he might have very well had the most surprising performance of the entire 2020 season.

After struggling in his true freshman season back in 2018 at USC, tearing his ACL in the 2019 opener, losing his starting job and subsequently transferring to Georgia, Daniels finally put together that five-star performance many were expecting from the get-go.

Though it wasn’t all peaches and roses for Daniels to start in Week 12. On his first drive back since his injury in 2019, Daniels looked like the quarterback we saw in 2018 when he put up a 59.8 PFF grade that ranked 118th in the FBS. He threw one right to the linebacker that ended up being a dropped interception, and then the next play took a bad sack that ended the drive.

From that point on, Daniels was nearly perfect. He recorded a 97.0 passing grade following that first series, featuring six deep completions for 232 yards and three touchdowns.

It was a promising debut for Daniels, who quite frankly has never played as well in his entire collegiate career. We still need to see a lot more from him before we proclaim him the Bulldogs’ saving grace, but if Daniels does manage to keep this up, it would be a statistical anomaly.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE WEEK

DI Dion Novil, North Texas

Novil just threw together one of the best defensive performances we have recorded this year in North Texas’ 27-17 win over Rice. The 6-foot-4, 330-pound nose tackle posted six run stops on the day, with five being tackles for loss or no gain while also forcing a couple of fumbles.

Then, as a pass-rusher, Novil once again put up absurd production for a man of his size who predominantly plays heads-up nose. He won on 26% of his pass-rush reps and recorded pressure on 18% of them. This dominant outing by Novil in both facets led him to a 98.4 PFF grade for the game. Throw in the fact that this was also the Mean Green’s first game in over a month due to byes and a Covid-19 cancellation and it makes Novil’s outing that much more impressive.

TRUE FRESHMAN OF THE WEEK

QB TJ Finley, LSU

With Myles Brennan out for the year with an injury, the LSU Tigers were forced to bring true freshmen TJ Finley and Max Johnson into the fold to help salvage the offense.

Finley took the first start without Brennan in Week 8, and while he put up good box score numbers, the passing grade didn’t match the hype at a poor mark of 59.9. The following week against Auburn, Finley looked disastrous with a 47.3 passing grade that ultimately led to LSU being blown out, Finley being benched and Johnson being brought in as his replacement.

Things weren’t looking great for Finley for at least this season, but he came out against Arkansas in Week 12 and flipped the script. The former three-star recruit had the third-best passing grade in the FBS this past week at 91.3 and helped lead the Tigers to victory.

First and foremost, it wasn’t a perfect game for Finley. He had a couple of turnover-worthy throws on the day, with one being a heave into double-coverage deep downfield and another being a throw right to a linebacker. He also nearly lost a fumble on a handoff in the fourth quarter. Luckily for him and LSU, Arkansas couldn’t capitalize on any of these mistakes. Finley made up for those bad plays with more positively graded throws than any quarterback of Week 12. He hit those money throws at the intermediate level, in particular, tying for the most completions between 10 and 19 yards downfield with 10 on 12 attempts for 150 yards and a touchdown.

OFFENSIVE LINE OF THE WEEK

BYU Cougars

Yes, they played North Alabama, but BYU’s stout offensive line did exactly what they needed to against this lesser competition: manhandle them.

The Cougars’ unit as a whole lost just three reps on the night, with one of those coming from the second-team that came in for the fourth quarter. The ample clean pockets helped Zach Wilson do his usual thing, as he recorded a passing grade above 90.0 for the night while leading BYU to the second-most efficient passing offense for the week.

BYU’s offensive line was the only group of Week 12 to earn pass-block and run-block grades above 80.0, and they managed to put up marks above 87.0 in each. To no surprise, left tackle Brady Christensen was the group's top performer with another elite-graded performance at 90.6 — the best we saw by an offensive lineman this week. Christensen's PFF grade now sits at 96.1 for the year. At this rate, he is on pace to break the PFF College record set by Penei Sewell in 2019.

SECRET SUPERSTAR OF THE WEEK

QB Carson Strong, Nevada

Strong might be the secret superstar of the entire 2020 season at this rate. The second-year starter has been dropping bombs downfield week in and week out for Nevada and has led the Wolf Pack to an undefeated record through five games.

Strong threw up four deep big-time throws in Nevada’s win over San Diego State this past week, three of which were thrown over 40 yards downfield. Only two ended up being caught, with others being dropped, but those dropped big-time throws are reflected in that elite 91.0 passing grade for the game. Strong now has six passing touchdowns on the season that traveled over 40-yards through the air. That is twice as many as any other quarterback in the FBS has this season and five more than he had in all of 2019. Keep in mind, Nevada started their season in Week 8.

Strong is now the owner of the third-highest passing grade by a non-Power 5 quarterback at 90.1. That passing grade also ranks 10th in the entire FBS. He is tied with Michael Penix Jr. for the most big-time throws in college football since their season began in Week 8, with 20, over five more than third. Outside of Zach Wilson, Strong is in the running for best non-Power 5 quarterback of 2020, and it’s time to give the man some credit.

PLAY OF THE WEEK

Who doesn’t love a big-man touchdown? That’s exactly what we got in the Iowa/Penn State game as the 6-foot-3, 305-pound interior defensive lineman Daviyon Nixon picked off Sean Clifford and took it to the house to seal the W for the Hawkeyes.

Nixon has been one of the more productive interior defensive linemen in the Big Ten this season as a pass-rusher. He ranks third in the conference in PFF pass-rush grade behind only the Ohio State duo of Haskell Garrett and Tommy Togiai. Now, Nixon is out here intercepting a pass and doing a euro step on the quarterback after the fact for the score. It doesn’t get much better than that.

AN EARLY LOOK AHEAD TO WEEK 13…

I’m not going to spend any time beating around the bush here; I'm not going to try to hype up Auburn versus Alabama or Pitt versus Clemson. There is one game that matters above all in Week 13 that could cause CFP chaos, and that game takes place in Chapel Hill as the Notre Dame Fighting Irish take on the North Carolina Tar Heels.

Each of these two teams had a bye in Week 12 and have quarterbacks that have been on fire recently. Just one time had Irish quarterback Ian Book earned a passing grade above 80.0 against a Power 5 defense in his collegiate career before Notre Dame’s Week 10 affair against Clemson. Through Week 9 of the 2020 season, in particular, Book’s passing grade was a lowly 60.3. Then he went out and earned a career-high 90.7 passing grade against Clemson and followed that up with another outstanding outing against Boston College that ended in an 87.2 passing grade. That made him the conference’s highest-graded quarterback over that two-week span.

Ever since the second half of that Florida State game back in Week 7, UNC’s Sam Howell has been aggressive downfield and has become the elite quarterback we expected this year. From Weeks 7 through 11, Howell led the FBS in deep (20-plus-yard throws) passing grade, completions (19), passing yards (703) and big-time throws (703). That’s paved the way for the fifth-best PFF grade in the FBS this season at 91.5.

This North Carolina offense can go toe-to-toe with this second-ranked Notre Dame team. It has upset special written all over it.

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