The college football season is finally starting to get weird. Upsets are happening in unlikely places, and leaders of contending teams are starting to feel the pressure of avoiding a costly blemish.
And as much as the team matters, individual players can be the difference in a win or a loss. We’re taking a look at the talents who will be asked to propel their program during a critical game this weekend.
Alex Delton, quarterback, Kansas State
If you’re looking for a possible upset to watch, check out TCU’s journey to Kansas State. That all depends on how Alex Delton performs in his first career start, but the Horned Frogs have allowed three straight 300-yard passers. Although the sophomore probably won’t extend that streak, he might reach the 250-yard mark through passing and rushing contributions combined. Oklahoma learned the hard way in Week 6 about overlooking a backup quarterback. TCU must be careful not to duplicate that mistake just because Delton is inexperienced.
John O’Korn, quarterback, Michigan
Well, that was bad. Really, really bad. John O’Korn toiled through the first half against Michigan State, then the rain came and O’Korn’s day only worsened. He posted an ugly 45.7 completion mark and tossed three interceptions. Now, the senior must attempt to rebound when Michigan travels to face Indiana, a team O’Korn started against in 2016 and trudged to just 78 yards of total offense. The Wolverines should be able to contain the Hoosiers, but like Week 6 showed, that only matters if O’Korn and the offense can actually score.
Nyheim Hines, running back, North Carolina State
Matt Dayes was a star for North Carolina State, but his replacement has done quite well. Nyheim Hines has tallied at least 90 rushing yards in four straight games, scoring a total of four touchdowns during that span. The Wolfpack, who have already defeated Florida State and Louisville this season, have legitimate dreams of dethroning Clemson. While a loss wouldn’t shatter NC State’s ACC hopes, a shortcoming at Pitt would end the possibility of something more. Hines, because he contributes as a runner, receiver and returner, will have plenty of chances to break off an explosive gain and keep the Pack undefeated in the ACC.
Nic Shimonek, quarterback, Texas Tech
West Virginia has collected 500 yards of total offense in five consecutive games. Texas Tech’s defense looks improved compared to recent seasons, but it would’ve been difficult for the Red Raiders to be any worse. If there’s a letdown coming from that unit, a road trip to Morgantown is a prime location for that to happen. Texas Tech may need to revert to the recent trend of hoping its quarterback can keep up. That’s a tough spot for Nic Shimonek, who touts 1,811 yards and 14 touchdowns on the season but has thrown an interception in three straight contests. The Red Raiders must not waste possessions in a high-scoring affair.
Jarrett Guarantano, quarterback, Tennessee
In a move somewhere between desperate and smart, Butch Jones is making the switch from Quinten Dormady to Jarrett Guarantano. VolQuest broke the news early in the week that the freshman would assume the starting job when Tennessee hosts South Carolina. The ugly truth is it’s more likely Guarantano struggles in Week 7, and a date with Alabama — in Tuscaloosa — next week is undoubtedly worrisome. But this is a valuable time for him to gain experience in a truly winnable game. Let’s see what the kid’s got.
Troy Fumagalli, tight end, Wisconsin
By no means is Purdue’s run defense excellent, but the Boilermakers aren’t a pushover. Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin’s rising star, cannot be expected to carry the offense Saturday. Tight ends have recently achieved some success opposite Purdue, though. Michigan’s Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry combined for eight catches, 130 yards and one touchdown, then Minnesota’s Brandon Lingen snagged four passes with one score. Troy Fumagalli is a reliable threat for the Badgers, and a couple of timely third-down and red-zone receptions should propel them to a victory.
Jarrett Stidham, quarterback, Auburn
Auburn’s offense is rolling, but LSU will put Jarrett Stidham to the test. The Baylor transfer has found his target on at least two-thirds of his attempts during the last four games, throwing for 1,081 yards and five touchdowns with just one interception in that span. LSU, meanwhile, hasn’t surrendered a completion percentage better than 65.2 percent to an opposing quarterback all season. Stidham, who labored to move the ball at Clemson earlier this year, cannot let those road woes reappear in the SEC’s Death Valley. Otherwise, Auburn’s championship dreams will take a serious hit.
Travis Homer, running back, Miami
Welcome to the starting lineup, kid. Travis Homer has been a special-teams ace for Miami, but Mark Walton’s season-ending injury means the sophomore is now the featured back. Homer, who enters the matchup against Georgia Tech with 207 rushing yards in four games, shows a promising blend of speed and power. That physicality should come in handy opposite a Yellow Jackets team undoubtedly capable of jumping on a battered Miami squad. Homer can provide much-needed energy for the ‘Canes in a key Coastal Division tilt.
Baker Mayfield, quarterback, Oklahoma
Oklahoma’s defense was a huge problem against Baylor and Iowa State. While it might be unfair to expect 40-some points from Baker Mayfield and Co. each week, that is officially his reality. But that might be a difficult mark to reach since Texas has responded defensively after an embarrassing loss to Maryland. The Longhorns have ceded 6.8 yards per pass attempt and a mere 2.3 yards per carry over the last four contests. Mayfield has started to run the ball more often in Oklahoma’s two recent games, and the Sooners will need that versatility to take advantage of Texas’ aggressiveness and stave off a second straight upset.
Jordan Ellis, running back, Virginia
The best way to describe Jordan Ellis’ production is consistent yet unspectacular. In Virginia’s four wins, the junior has notched at least 80 total yards — though never better than five yards per attempt. Ellis only has 10 gains of 10-plus yards with a long of 25, but he’s helped moved the chains on 3rd-and-3 or less 12 out of 15 times he’s received a carry. North Carolina has struggled to stop the run this season, so Ellis can help the Hoos avoid a tight fourth quarter by doing the same old thing and ripping off a couple of big plays. Virginia is going to need some explosiveness during an unforgiving November anyway. There’s no better time to start seeing that.
Zach Abey, quarterback, Navy
The scoreboard will be tested when Navy meets Memphis for a conference battle between teams averaging 37-plus points per game. Zach Abey has quietly been a star for the Midshipmen, who enter the AAC showdown at 5-0. He’s piled up 870 yards — with a 174-yard average that ranks second overall in the country — and accounted for 14 touchdowns. Memphis recently ceded 350 rushing yards to UCF, so the opportunity is clear. Abey must be smart with the football because any turnover could be the decisive moment of a shootout with Memphis.
J.K. Dobbins, running back, Ohio State
Taylor showed in Week 6 how Nebraska’s run defense can be picked apart. Once J.K. Dobbins finds a crease, he might be gone. The freshman standout has established himself as a key part of the Ohio State attack, averaging no worse than 5.5 yards per carry in any appearance this season. Dobbins currently leads the Buckeyes with 669 yards on the ground. His nine gains of 20-plus yards is tied with Georgia star Nick Chubb for the fourth-best total nationally. A couple of long runs from Dobbins can ensure Ohio State isn’t even in the upset discussion.
Quinton Flowers, quarterback, South Florida
South Florida shouldn’t be caught looking ahead, but Cincinnati has enough talent on offense to make things interesting in Week 7. The defense, on the other hand, seems unlikely to contain Quinton Flowers. His greatest value through five games has been on the ground, and the Bulls can continue relying on the rushing attack this weekend. However, the senior has generally looked to Marquez Valdez-Scantling through the air. Flowers and USF must execute a more diverse passing game to survive the regular season undefeated, and a favorable matchup following a bye is an ideal moment to start hitting other targets.
Ronald Jones II, running back, USC
Sam Darnold assembled a solid performance in his first outing after the upset loss at Washington State. Now, it’s his teammate’s turn to lead USC. Every game is a must-win for the Trojans at this point, but the next two weeks figure to shape their regular-season success. While Utah has been stingy defensively, both Arizona and Stanford enjoyed a fair bit of success on the ground. Ronald Jones II has explosive ability that USC can utilize to protect home field. Since Jones only managed 15 yards on eight carries against the Utes last season, this is an opportunity for redemption, too.
Brian Lewerke, quarterback, Michigan State
Brian Lewerke doesn’t need to be sensational. As long as he keeps doing enough, that’s OK for Michigan State. The junior has avoided big mistakes as a passer and consistently provided a running threat, scampering for at least 42 yards in all five games so far. And over the last two weeks, Minnesota’s defense has struggled to stop balanced attacks in losses to Maryland and Purdue. The Spartans are still teetering on the edge of being taken seriously as a contender in the Big Ten’s loaded East Division, so Lewerke cannot afford to slip up at Minnesota.
Christian Chapman, quarterback, San Diego State
Contrary to popular belief, San Diego State does in fact have a quarterback. Rashaad Penny doesn’t do everything for the Aztecs, though sometimes it feels that way. Christian Chapman must convert short-yardage and red-zone opportunities to keep Boise State off balance. The Broncos are capable of limiting Penny, a Heisman Trophy hopeful, on the ground, but Chapman can remove some pressure on his star teammate. It’s no coincidence SDSU has converted just 26.2 percent on third down in three one-possession wins and 56.4 in three victories of 10-plus points.
Myles Gaskin, running back, Washington
Only one game stands between Washington and the fully expected 7-0 start. Remember that last season, however, the Huskies nearly lost a road trip in the state of Arizona. Myles Gaskin recorded a meager 3.5 yards per carry on 24 attempts in that overtime win over Arizona. But this Arizona State defense is prone to huge performances from opposing running backs. Both Penny and Love shredded the Sun Devils. Gaskin, who has amassed 406 yards in three Pac-12 games, could help a slow-starting Washington squad run away from Arizona State in the first half.