We witnessed a wild week of college football last weekend, filled with upsets, come-from-behind wins, exhilarating performances and more. With that, and the return of the Big Ten and PAC 12 for this fall season, our PFF Elo-based rankings got a little bit of a shakeup.
The PFF Elo system serves as the base power metric for our NCAA simulation; it not only factors in PFF grades and stats, but it also takes into account recruiting rankings, returning players and market information. Here is how it ranks the top 25 college football teams ahead of Week 5 of the 2020 season.
Trevor Lawrence is playing perfectly, or at least as close to that as a quarterback can. He’s produced a 95.7 passing grade in his two game appearances and thrown all but two passes accurately, recording an accurate pass rate of 94.1% — nearly 20 percentage points higher than any other quarterback so far. With Lawrence under center, the Tigers have produced 0.7 EPA per pass play, the best in the Power Five. At this rate, he may break the record for the highest single-season grade of the PFF College era.
This Alabama offense was as good as advertised in its season opener against Mizzou. Quarterback Mac Jones was our top quarterback of Week 4, as he produced a 91.1 PFF grade, two big-time throws and not a single turnover-worthy play. The defense as a whole was fine, but the outside corner duo of Patrick Surtain II and Josh Jobe looked lights out. The tandem combined to allow just 27 yards on nine targets.
Ohio State arguably has the best roster in the country. Justin Fields, who produced the 10th-most-valuable season we have recorded at the position in 2019, has two refined route-runners at his disposal in Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. Each of the two can separate with ease against single coverage. On the defensive side of the ball, they return a promising secondary despite losing Jeff Okudah and Damon Arnette. Shaun Wade leads the way and will be kicking outside after manning the slot exceptionally well in 2019, recording more plays on the ball than the number of first downs allowed. Opposite Wade, it’s either Sevyn Banks or Cam Brown, both of whom have shined on small samples.
D’Wan Mathis made his collegiate debut against Arkansas last Saturday, and it was one of the wildest first starts in recent memory. He had three big-time throws and three turnover-worthy plays, leading Georgia to -0.71 EPA per pass play when on the field. That prompted Georgia to throw in Stetson Bennett, and the offense looked so much better. Bennett recorded an 87.6 passing grade and produced 0.34 EPA per pass play. He, as well as the play of the defense, got the Bulldogs out of a possible upset situation that Mathis dug them into. However, we could get another quarterback change with USC transfer J.T. Daniels now medically cleared to play. That’s a situation to monitor closely, and it will be interesting to see how it all shakes out considering the numerous red flags from Daniels' play when he started for the Trojans.
5. LSU TIGERS
The LSU Tigers stuck to their guns and played solely man coverage against Mike Leach’s Air-Raid offense last weekend. Of course, they got picked apart, allowing 0.32 EPA per pass play. On the bright side, we got to see five-star true freshman Eli Ricks standing in for Derek Stingley Jr., and he was one of the few bright spots on the defensive side of the ball; he notched an interception and a pass breakup while allowing only two catches. This week, they get a Vandy team that is last in the SEC in Elo, so perhaps LSU can string together a bounce-back game.
Quarterback Kyle Trask had never come close to producing at the level he did in his 2020 debut. In his 10 starts last year, just once did he earn a single-game passing grade of 71.0 or higher. Against Ole Miss, Trask produced a career-high passing grade of 90.5. There were a couple of plays where he looked like the 2019 Trask, but his decision-making wasn't at that 2019 level throughout the whole game. The defining aspect of Trask's great day was that he finally put his arm talent on display and made several special throws downfield. Not only was this the most efficient passing attack Florida has had in a single game with Trask under center (in terms of EPA per pass play), but it was actually the most efficient they have fielded in the PFF College era.
The one concern with Florida going into their second week of action is the secondary. Everyone not named Kaiir Elam got smoked against Ole Miss — the true sophomore was the only player to produce a coverage grade above 65.0. As a whole, the Gators combined to produce the worst coverage grade of any Power Five team in Week 4.
The big concern about this Irish team lies at the most important position on the field — in quarterback Ian Book. He has the nation's best offensive line protecting him, yet he has failed to take advantage of it. Book recorded just a 58.2 passing grade from a clean pocket against Duke and USF (seventh-worst in the Power Five). He is also one of two quarterbacks who have attempted at least 40 passes in 2020 and have yet to tally at least one big-time throw. Their defense looks like championship level, though, as they have allowed -0.33 EPA per pass, the sixth-best in the FBS.
While Spencer Rattler made a few costly mistakes in Oklahoma’s upset loss, he still isn't the cause for concern — the defense is. The team's pass coverage did a somewhat decent job on paper, allowing just six first downs in total to the Wildcats. The only issue was that four of those six first downs were extremely big plays — they allowed four plays in coverage that resulted in again of 35 or more yards (tied for the most of the week), and all four set up a touchdown drive for the Wildcats. Rattler still has a 91.1 passing grade on the year and is continuing the trend of making Oklahoma’s offense a potent one.
Nix was one of the more up-and-down quarterbacks of 2019 as a true freshman. He produced a solid passing grade above 70.0 in six of his 13 games played but recorded sub-60.0 passing grades — with three not even cracking 50.0 — in the remaining seven. He needed to find some consistency in 2020, and the sophomore got off to a decent start on Saturday. The Auburn signal-caller produced a 77.0 passing grade for the game and came up huge in the second half, with three big-time throws. And he did this against a pretty good Kentucky defense. This is a promising start for Nix's second year under center for Auburn, but we will find out if this is a new Nix or the same one we saw last year come next Saturday when they travel to Athens to take on Georgia.
It’s still unknown as to whether Micah Parsons will remain opted-out, but this is still a talented defense, regardless. Their edge duo of Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh is one of the top tandems in college football. Toney has been a top-10 edge rusher in the Big Ten in each of his three seasons in regard to PFF pass-rushing grade, and that’s not likely to change in 2020. Oweh is an athletic freak and has top-end burst. He won 20.3% of his reps serving as the backup last season, 17th among FBS edge defenders. He has breakout written all over him in a starting role.
Michigan returns the best edge duo in the conference in Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye. They ranked first and third, respectively, in PFF grade last year among current Big Ten edge defenders. Paye is incredibly explosive for a guy his size. He drastically improved as a pass-rusher from 2018 to 2019 — raising his grade from 59.4 to 77.8. If Paye comes out in 2020 with a more refined technique, his stock will skyrocket.
On the offensive side, wide receiver Giles Jackson could be a big-time breakout with Nico Collins’ targets no longer in the picture. The 5-foot-9 Jackson is an electric playmaker. We saw it from him as a returner in his true freshman campaign, and he flashed it as a receiver. Jackson only ran 20 routes, yet Michigan still fed him with 12 targets. He averaged 7.1 yards per route run and showed the ability to get behind defenses with impressive speed.
12. OREGON DUCKS
Oregon is going to be one of the most interesting teams to watch this year after losing a multitude of talented players to opt-outs and embarking on the first year of the Tyler Shough era. Defensive backs Thomas Graham Jr., Deommodore Lenoir and Jevon Holland, as well as tackle Penei Sewell, all opted-out and will be taking their talents to the NFL. This leaves the offensive line with a new starter at every position, but the secondary is still in decent shape despite those three starters leaving. True sophomore Mykael Wright leads the way after a stellar first-year as a backup. He saw 23 targets last year and allowed a passer rating of 28.4.
Wisconsin may have lost its four most valuable players from a 10-4 2019 season that featured a Big Ten Championship appearance, but the Badgers still look formidable on paper. Quarterback Jack Coan will look to build off a solid 2019 (his first full season as the starter) that saw him throw the lowest rate of uncatchable passes beyond the line of scrimmage in the Big Ten (20.7%). Coan has a decent slew of pass-catchers, the best of the bunch being tight end Jake Ferguson and running back Garrett Groshek.
14. TEXAS A&M AGGIES
Texas A&M barely survived against Vanderbilt in Week 4, and now they have the great fortune of taking on the Alabama Crimson Tide. The Aggies came into the game favored over the Commodores, who were last in our SEC Elo ranking, by a whopping 31 points. That blowout win, however, did not occur. Texas A&M won by just five points (17-12) and gave Vandy multiple opportunities to go out ahead of them in the fourth quarter, with two drives ending in a fumble. Quarterback Kellen Mond will look to have a bounce-back game after he had a couple of fumbles himself and struggled to move the ball downfield. He went 3-for-11 on throws of 10 or more yards, recording a turnover-worthy play and zero big-time throws.
15. MIAMI HURRICANES
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and quarterback D’Eriq King have taken this offense to heights it as rarely seen in the PFF College era. The Hurricanes’ current 0.43 EPA per pass in 2020 is the third-best among Power Five offenses — for perspective on how bad the passing attack has been for The U in recent years, they’ve produced negative EPA per pass in the three years prior to 2020.
16. TEXAS LONGHORNS
This Texas team gave some reason to worry after their ugly overtime win against Texas Tech, who almost got taken down by FCS’s Houston Baptist the week before. While the offense did put up points, this was far from a stellar outing from Ehlinger, as he didn't really show up until late in the game. Through the first three quarters of action, Ehlinger had a lowly 62.9 passing grade with two turnover-worthy plays and not a single big-time throw. Overall, he had four turnover-worthy plays, which tied for the most in a single game of his career and was just the second time he has had more than two.
The defense looked even worse, especially in the second half, when they gave up 0.13 EPA per play. The Longhorns defense benefitted from some really bad throws from Texas Tech quarterback Alan Bowman but still managed to let them back into the game thanks to a load of missed tackles and poor coverage underneath. Texas' coverage unit as a whole produced a coverage grade that ranked just 41st among teams to play in Week 4.
17. UCF KNIGHTS
After a stellar start to his sophomore campaign against Georgia Tech in Week 3, quarterback Dillon Gabriel followed it up with an even better one. Gabriel posted the second-best passing grade of his career against East Carolina, at a mark above an elite 90.0. He was supremely accurate on shallow throws, which helped him earn a 90.8 passing grade on throws that were less than 9 yards downfield. Overall in the game, Gabriel had very few bad throws and had the lowest negatively graded throw rate of the entire week.
Jarrett Guarantano’s accuracy looked brutal once again versus South Carolina, as just 43% of his total passes were deemed accurate. However, the offense prevailed and was still efficient. Tennessee produced positive EPA on 58.3% of their pass plays, ranking second among Power Five offenses of Week 4. Guarantano producing a higher negatively graded throw rate (which was the fifth-worst of the week) than positive graded throw rate is a long-term concern though.
19. UTAH UTES
Of Utah’s 14 most valuable players from their 11-3 season in 2019, 12 are no longer with the team. Only LSU lost more value due to draft/graduation than Utah last year. While the passing attack is bound to take a step back, it should be close to the top in the PAC 12. South Carolina transfer Jake Bentley can lead an efficient passing offense despite his ball-protection issues, and the receiving unit, led by tight end Brant Kuithe, is one of the better groups in the conference. Kuithe was the fourth-most-productive FBS tight end on a per-route basis in 2019, picking up 2.7 yards per route run.
20. IOWA HAWKEYES
Redshirt sophomore Spencer Petras has taken just 11 dropbacks in his collegiate career, but luckily, he’ll have no shortage of receiving weapons to throw to. Wide receivers Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Brandon Smith and Tyrone Tracy Jr. all earned receiving grades above 70.0 last year, which makes Iowa the only Power Five school to roster three wideouts currently who are coming off such years. Petras will also have a stout offensive line blocking for him. It is led by center Tyler Linderbaum, who was one of few interior offensive linemen to crack the PFF College 50.
21. BAYLOR BEARS
The Baylor passing attack was pretty conservative last week, with an average depth of target of 7.4 yards downfield, and this played a part in them picking up an explosive play of 15-plus yards three times on 24 pass attempts. Another interesting observation was how much lower their rate of play-action passes was. Brewer utilized play-action on just 17.2% of his dropbacks against Kansas, over 10 percentage points lower than in 2019. That was really the backbone of his success last year, as he struggled to get through reads, so it might be best for Larry Fedora to take that rate higher as opposed to lower.
22. MEMPHIS TIGERS
The Tigers’ passing attack was cooking in their Week 1 win over Ark State, producing 0.37 EPA per pass play. Quarterback Brady White looked pretty sharp, too, as he recorded an 85.8 passing grade and found himself another top target in tight end Sean Dykes. The fifth-year senior had caught only 33 balls in his career prior to 2020, but he hauled in 10 in Week 1 en route to a 92.1 receiving grade.
Levi Onwuzurike and Joe Tryon both opted out of the 2020 season, but Washington still returns two of the top defensive backs in the country in slot corner Elijah Molden and outside corner Trent McDuffie. Molden is instinctive with incredible short-area quickness, which helped him record 21 forced incompletions in the slot the past two years (six more than anyone else). In McDuffie’s true freshman season in 2019, he played the fifth-most press snaps in the country and ranked 11th in PFF coverage grade on those reps.
Oklahoma State has the best secondary in college football. Their defensive backs have combined to produce a 79.8 coverage grade, the fifth-best of 2020. The Cowboys did return one of the best safety duos in the country in Kolby Harvell-Peel and Tre Sterling, but the big reason the unit has been as successful as they have been is due to the breakout of Rodarius Williams. After providing good-but-not-great on the outside for Oklahoma State for three years, Williams is producing at an elite level in 2020. He has yet to allow a single yard on 75 coverage snaps and has totaled up five pass breakups in the process.
25. PITT PANTHERS
This Pitt defensive front is one of the best in college football. They’ve consistently gotten after the quarterback, recording a pressure on 45.2% of their opposition’s dropbacks, which ranks eighth in the country. And the scary thing is, the unit hasen’t even played to its full potential yet. Edge rusher Patrick Jones II had been relatively quiet thus far, generating just one pressure against Austin Peay, zero against Syracuse and then six against Louisville. But of those six, three were unblocked or a cleanup. If he can find his 2019 form — which saw him record the 25th-best win rate to go along with an 84.2 pass-rush grade — this Pitt pass-rush will go from one of the best to the best.