From the big ranked matchups (Wisconsin-Ohio State, Auburn-LSU, Michigan-Notre Dame) to the off-the-beaten-path gems (Navy-Tulane, UCF-Temple, Utah State-Air Force, Troy-Georgia State), this weekend offers plenty of intrigue.
Here are the most intriguing questions for Week 9.
Can Wisconsin prove last week’s performance was a fluke?
A week ago, we were wondering whether Ohio State vs. Wisconsin in Columbus would be a preview of the Big Ten championship game. Now, we’d just be happy to see a competitive game.
Through the first seven weeks, the Badgers looked like a legitimate threat to not only win the Big Ten, but perhaps go undefeated and compete for a playoff spot. After Saturday’s shocking loss to Illinois, Wisconsin might have lost not only its chance at the playoff, but perhaps a shot at a conference title and a berth in the Rose Bowl.
Although it played against a soft schedule, the Badgers defense was historically good during its 6-0 start. Wisconsin became the first Big Ten team with four shutouts in a season since Michigan in 1978 and the first in conference history with at least four in the first six games since Minnesota in 1962. They were allowing less than five points per game. Then Illinois and Lovie Smith showed up.
After surrendering just four touchdowns and 29 points in their first six games, the Badgers gave up three touchdowns and 24 points to the Fighting Illini, who came into the game ranked 52nd in the country in efficiency by SP+.
Now, Wisconsin faces the nation’s fifth-most efficient offense by SP+, led by Heisman Trophy contender Justin Fields.
Based on what we saw last week, when Ohio State was busy scoring 52 points against what was statistically one of the nation’s best defenses at Northwestern, there isn’t much hope for the Badgers to spring an upset. But we’ve seen Wisconsin at least has the pieces to form a great defense. Saturday will be a chance to prove it can put it all together against a talented opponent.
Nobody has been able to slow Joe Burrow and LSU’s high-powered offense this season, but Auburn just might have the trick.
Auburn’s defensive line is among the nation’s best, racking up 20 sacks and allowing just 3.07 yards per carry. The secondary has been solid, too, allowing just 6.03 yards per pass attempt.
Way back in Week 1, Auburn was able to slow Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, limiting him to just 6.5 yards per attempt and one touchdown. But it also has struggled to contain Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond (31-for-49, 335 yards, 2 TDs), Florida’s Kyle Trask (19-for-31, 234 yards, 2 TDs) and Mississippi State’s Garrett Shrader (12-for-23, 209 yards, 2 TDs).
Burrow is having the best season for a quarterback in LSU history, setting the school single-season record for touchdown passes, and he’s on pace to shatter the single-season passing yards mark. But this Auburn defense will be by far his biggest challenge (ranked sixth in SP+), led by a future first-round draft pick in defensive tackle Derrick Brown.
If Auburn’s front four can get in Burrow’s face and make him uncomfortable, Auburn has a shot. The bigger question is whether up-and-down freshman Bo Nix can do enough on offense to keep up.
Can Penn State avoid the Curse of Sparty?
Since James Franklin took over in 2014, Penn State is 1-4 against Michigan State. The past two losses have come with the Nittany Lions ranked in the top 10, all but ending their playoff hopes and a chance at a Big Ten title.
On Saturday, Penn State travels to East Lansing as the No. 6-ranked team. Uh oh.
Though the Spartans already have lost three games, including their past two by a combined 72-10 to Ohio State and Wisconsin, the defense still ranks as one of the nation’s most efficient (11th in SP+). And there’s no denying their talent, with linebacker Joe Bachie (66 tackles), defensive end Kenny Willekes (3 ½ sacks) and defensive tackle Raequan Williams (3 ½ sacks) leading the way.
The challenge for Penn State will be finding more consistency on offense. The Nittany Lions have been boom-or-bust, generating explosive plays while also experiencing long stretches of ineptitude. In four scoring drives against Michigan, Penn State averaged 10.7 yards per play, and quarterback Sean Clifford threw touchdown passes of 17, 25 and 53 yards, the last two to speedy wideout K.J. Hamler. In the nine other drives (excluding kneel-downs), it averaged 2.2 yards per play. On their 13 drives, the Nittany Lions averaged just 4.2 plays, including six three-and-outs.
Penn State has been able to stay undefeated relying on explosive plays and a strong defense. But it’s a dangerous game, and if history is any indication, this is the week it catches up to them.
Is a Big 12 title game appearance slipping out of Texas’ reach?
Before the season, an Oklahoma vs. Texas rematch for the Big 12 championship seemed inevitable. Both had explosive offenses led by star quarterbacks, preseason top-10 rankings and conference schedules that looked rather soft.
At the midway point, the Sooners have lived up to their lofty billing. The Longhorns, on the other hand, just struggled to beat Kansas at home.
Texas faces rival TCU this weekend having already lost twice and is looking up at Iowa State and Baylor in the conference standings. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Longhorns just a 1.0% chance of winning out and a 3.2% chance of winning the Big 12, with predicted losses against Iowa State and Baylor.
Tom Herman has done well to raise Texas back to national prominence, with last year’s 10-win season and Sugar Bowl victory over Georgia positive signs of progress. But a slip to the middle of the conference and another four-loss campaign won’t sit well in Austin. Saturday’s game will determine whether a conference title is still in reach, or whether Texas should be looking ahead to 2020.
Was last week’s comeback bid a sign of progress for Michigan’s offense?
After falling behind 21-0 against Penn State on Saturday night, the Wolverines rallied and would have forced overtime had Ronnie Bell held on to a touchdown catch on fourth down late in the game. While Jim Harbaugh likely isn’t interested in moral victories, Michigan finally showed some life on offense.
Shea Patterson got the ball out of his hand quickly, giving the Wolverines’ best playmakers time and space to get upfield. Though it wasn’t always pretty, Michigan averaged 11.5 yards per completion with chunk plays of 19 (twice), 30 and 35 yards, and freshman running back Zach Charbonnet averaged 5.4 yards per carry. It nearly added up to a shocking upset victory.
New offensive coordinator Josh Gattis was often criticized for how anemic Michigan’s offense looked in the first few weeks as the Wolverines transitioned from a run-heavy scheme to a more spread open, run-pass-option friendly attack. Fans often want new coordinators and new coaches to make immediate improvements, but it takes time to learn a new playbook and implement those plays correctly. We might finally be seeing Patterson and Co. getting comfortable with the new concepts, and at just the right time, with No. 8 Notre Dame coming to The Big House on Saturday night.
Some smaller questions worth asking
Can Oregon and Utah avoid stubbing their toes in #Pac12AfterDark games? The Ducks and Utes each won big conference games last week to stay in the Pac 12 title hunt, and they’ll need to bring the same intensity this week to avoid a costly stumble. Oregon hosts Washington State, which will test the Ducks’ much-improved defense. Utah, meanwhile, hosts California and its strong defense, led by tackling machine Evan Weaver. If anyone is capable of slowing down the Utes’ ground-and-pound attack, led by star running back Zack Moss, it’s the Golden Bears.
What will Mac Jones look like at quarterback for Alabama, and does it even matter? Depending on how quickly Tua Tagovailoa is able to return from ankle surgery, Jones could simply be making a spot start against struggling Arkansas or getting valuable repetitions in preparation for the Crimson Tide’s home game Nov. 9 against LSU. How Alabama adjusts its offense will be fascinating to watch. The drop in talent cannot be overstated, considering Tagovailoa is expected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NFL draft and Jones is a former three-star recruit. Alabama’s receiving corps is the best security blanket a new quarterback can ask for, but just how much does the Tide coaching staff trust Jones to throw the ball?
Is Navy an AAC dark horse? For all the attention the American Athletic Conference has received for its strong start, led by Cincinnati, Memphis and undefeated SMU, Navy is quietly 5-1. On Saturday, the Midshipmen host Tulane, which is enjoying a renaissance under Willie Fritz at 5-2. With quarterback Malcolm Perry at the helm and an improved defense (currently ranked 46th in SP+ after finishing 114th in 2018), it’s not out of the question to consider the Mids conference title contenders.
Can Les Miles and Kansas end the season on a high note? Nobody was sure what to think of Miles’ hiring. Was he too far removed from his glory days at LSU? Could he adapt to modern football? Even though they’re just 2-5, the Jayhawks have been competitive, crushing Boston College on the road and giving Texas all it could handle last week. Kansas hosts Texas Tech on Saturday night, and there’s a good chance it comes away with a win. A conference victory would be a step in the right direction for Miles.
Where does Temple fit in the AAC hierarchy? UCF might have two losses, but the Knights are still among the elite in the Group of 5. Temple is trying to get to that level, and it has stayed relevant even after losing two coaches (Matt Rhule and Geoff Collins) to Power 5 programs. The Owls would certainly like more stability at head coach, but they’ve proven they can recruit well and consistently reach bowl games — unthinkable just six years ago. A game against UCF will be an interesting measuring stick.
What’s the best under-the-radar game of the week? Utah State vs. Air Force is in a fun time slot — 10:15 p.m. on ESPN2 — for late-night enjoyment, with possible NFL draft pick Jordan Love slinging the ball around for the Aggies against the second-best rushing team in the country in the Falcons’ triple-option attack. In the 7 p.m. window, take a peek at Troy vs. Georgia State — a potentially high-scoring affair (over/under: 67 points) with a very slight favorite (Georgia State by 1). The Panthers need a win to keep up with Appalachian State in the Sun Belt standings — and to become bowl-eligible for just the third time in program history.