College football storylines, Week 9: Ohio State meets a desperate Penn State in prime time

The early season Big Ten matchup circled on everyone’s calendar lost some of its luster after the conference’s wild opening weekend, but it still could be one of the best games of the year.

Let’s dive into it. Here’s what to watch this weekend in college football:


Is desperation enough for Penn State? (No. 3 Ohio State at No. 18 Penn State, Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ABC): After all the talk about how Penn State presented the biggest threat to Ohio State in the Big Ten and could get into the College Football Playoff for the first time after routinely coming up short under coach James Franklin, the Nittany Lions went out and lost in heartbreaking fashion to Indiana in their season opener.

Michael Penix Jr.'s stretch at the goal line likely ended any hopes of Penn State becoming a national title contender, but that dream always depended on beating the Buckeyes. Well, here they are.


After shaking off some rust, Ohio State dominated Nebraska, 52-17, led by star quarterback Justin Fields (20-for-21 passing, 276 yards, two touchdowns; 54 rushing yards, one touchdown). Penn State had little answer for Fields and Co. in last year’s meeting, falling behind 21-0 before making a frantic comeback, and that defense had All-America linebacker Micah Parsons and future NFL draft pick Yetur Gross-Matos. The Nittany Lions couldn’t stop Indiana when it mattered most last weekend, and it’s hard to believe they’ll be able to slow the Buckeyes, especially without a raucous 107,000 fans to lean on. Their best hope is the edge rushing duo of Shaka Toney and Jayson Oweh, who had the two best pass-rush win rate percentages in the country in Week 8, according to Pro Football Focus.

If there’s one area to attack Ohio State, it might be on the ground after the Buckeyes lost linebacker Malik Harrison and defensive linemen DaVon Hamilton and Chase Young to the NFL, but Penn State has already lost top running backs Journey Brown and Noah Cain to injuries. Devyn Ford and a pair of true freshmen, Keyvone Lee and Caziah Holmes, now must carry the load. To pull off the upset, the Nittany Lions need quarterback Sean Clifford to play the best game of his career and a receiver — perhaps freshman Parker Washington — to step up. It’s a lot to ask for, but it’s not impossible.

Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders throws a pass during a game Oct. 24, 2020, in Stillwater, Okla.
Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders throws a pass during a game Oct. 24, 2020, in Stillwater, Okla. (Brody Schmidt/AP)

Big ramifications for Big 12 (Texas at No. 6 Oklahoma State, Saturday, 4 p.m., Fox): The Big 12′s playoff hopes now rest on Oklahoma State after disappointing starts for conference front-runners Texas and Oklahoma. The Cowboys will have to beat those two teams to get there, and their first challenge comes Saturday. The Longhorns haven’t been able to stop anybody, save for Baylor last weekend, while the Cowboys boast the nation’s 12th most efficient defense. If Oklahoma State can ride that defense and star running back Chubba Hubbard to an undefeated season, the Big 12 has a chance to get back in the playoff. If the Cowboys stumble, and they very well could against Texas, the conference has little hope of cracking the four-team field. OSU hasn’t been tested much, so we’ll see what they’re made of Saturday in Stillwater against Sam Ehlinger and Co.

Some anxiety in SEC (LSU at Auburn, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS): When the revamped SEC schedules were released in August, nobody expected this matchup to be between two unranked teams. LSU lost plenty of talent from its national title team, but coach Ed Orgeron still believed his Tigers could compete for a conference title. Auburn, meanwhile, returned quarterback Bo Nix, wide receiver Seth Williams and plenty of talent on defense. So what happened? Well, LSU’s defense cratered under new coordinator Bo Pelini, while Nix failed to take a step forward as a passer after an up-and-down freshman season. It all comes to a head Saturday, with LSU riding the hot hand of new starting quarterback TJ Finley and Auburn showing more cohesion on offense. Orgeron has earned himself a grace period after what he did in 2019, but that often ends quickly when losses start piling up. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn is used to the hot seat, but fans won’t be happy if the Tigers sit at .500 after six games. These are the kinds of games that get plenty of folks riled up.

Michigan quarterback Joe Milton celebrates his touchdown against Minnesota in the third quarter Oct. 24, 2020, in Minneapolis.
Michigan quarterback Joe Milton celebrates his touchdown against Minnesota in the third quarter Oct. 24, 2020, in Minneapolis. (Bruce Kluckhohn/AP)

Michigan moving up (Michigan State at No. 13 Michigan, Saturday, noon, Fox): The Wolverines might have a quarterback. Joe Milton shined in his debut, throwing for 225 yards and a touchdown and rushing for 52 yards and a score in a 49-24 win over Minnesota. Michigan dominated with a balanced rushing attack that averaged 8.3 yards on 31 carries, and Milton was efficient spreading the ball to nine receivers. It’s too early to make any sweeping judgments, but if Jim Harbaugh’s squad can continue to play this well offensively, combined with a defense that sacked Golden Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan five times and limited him to just 6.4 yards per attempt, the Wolverines might be ready to compete for the Big Ten title sooner than expected.

Cincinnati cruising — for now (Memphis at No. 7 Cincinnati, Saturday, noon, ESPN): The Bearcats keep rolling along, crushing SMU, 42-13, to move to 4-0. Desmond Ridder has emerged as one of the best quarterbacks not just in the Group of Five, but the entire country, averaging 7.3 yards per pass attempt and 10.9 yards per carry with 10 total touchdowns. With Memphis and Central Florida struggling, Cincinnati has a clear path to the American Athletic Conference title, but it doesn’t have to stop there. If the Bearcats win out, and do so convincingly, they have a chance — a small one — at claiming a spot in the College Football Playoff. The next two games will be key, with Memphis rebounding after an early loss to SMU and Houston rounding into form after a rash of canceled games.

Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. celebrates after Indiana defeated Penn State in overtime Oct. 24, 2020, in Bloomington, Ind.
Indiana quarterback Michael Penix Jr. celebrates after Indiana defeated Penn State in overtime Oct. 24, 2020, in Bloomington, Ind. (Darron Cummings/AP)

Indiana inching forward (No. 17 Indiana at Rutgers, Saturday, 3:30 p.m., BTN): There’s one major question after the Hoosiers' stunning upset of No. 5 Penn State last weekend in Bloomington on Michael Penix Jr.'s diving 2-point conversion: What’s next? Tom Allen has made Indiana a force to be reckoned with in a loaded Big Ten East division but hasn’t been able to break through against Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan. The win over the Nittany Lions is proof of the concept that Indiana can succeed against some of the nation’s elite programs. Now it’s about sustaining that level of success. The Hoosiers can’t afford a letdown against a surprisingly competent Rutgers team coming off a win over Michigan State. There’s a chance for this to be a special season for Indiana with Penix leading the way, and that means taking care of business as the favorite.

Arkansas on the rise (Arkansas at No. 8 Texas A&M, Saturday, 7:30 p.m., SECN): The job Sam Pittman has done in his first season is worthy of Coach of the Year consideration. The Razorbacks went 4-20 over the past two seasons under Chad Morris and interim Barry Lunney Jr. and Pittman is already halfway toward that win total — and probably should be 3-1 if the SEC officials cooperated against Auburn. Arkansas' defense, long an SEC laughingstock, has already forced 13 turnovers, tied for third in the country, and ranks 46th in efficiency after finishing the 2019 season 88th. The offense is still a work-in-progress with Florida transfer quarterback Feleipe Franks, but the Hogs have achieved a baseline level of competence that has been sorely lacking since the end of Bret Bielema’s tenure in 2017. That might not be enough to upset a top-10 team on the road, but Arkansas will at least make things difficult for Jimbo Fisher’s squad. That’s an achievement worth celebrating in Fayetteville.

Coastal living (No. 20 Coastal Carolina at Georgia State, Saturday, noon, ESPNU): Comb through the NCAA leaders in passing efficiency and you’ll see some of the biggest names in the sport: Justin Fields, Mac Jones, Zach Wilson and Kyle Trask, just to name a few. Then there’s Coastal Carolina’s Grayson McCall, a dual-threat playmaker for one of the nation’s up-and-coming programs. The Chanticleers, just three years after joining the FBS, are ranked for the first time, in large part because of McCall. The redshirt freshman, who’s dealing with an upper-body injury that kept him out of last week’s game against Georgia Southern, has thrown 11 touchdown passes to just one interception while rushing for 184 yards and three scores. If McCall does end up playing, and his coach is “cautiously optimistic” that he will, make time to watch him.

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