College football fans enjoy the luxury of embracing the madness. Players and coaches, on the other hand, only feel the pressure of avoiding upsets.
Week 8’s most important games will shake up conference races, and one or two players from those matchups will shape the weekend’s results. Although Saturday starts off somewhat slowly, the prime-time slate is loaded with individuals to watch.
Ty Johnson, running back, Maryland
Wisconsin is 6-0 and boasts one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. For Maryland to have any chance at an upset, Ty Johnson needs to break off some explosive plays. That’s certainly doable for the junior, whose six gains of 30-plus yards only trail four players nationally. He’s eclipsed the 100-yard mark in three games and is averaging 7.2 yards per carry. However, the Badgers have only surrendered four 20-plus-yard runs all season. Containing him likely means a painless Wisconsin victory. But if Johnson sets up a couple of easy scores, the Badgers better be prepared for a four-quarter fight.
Mason Rudolph, quarterback, Oklahoma State
Texas fell behind Oklahoma 20-0 last week, and the primary reason the deficit wasn’t worse is the defense stopped breaking when it bent. The Longhorns forced a pair of short field goals instead of allowing a touchdown, and the offense eventually woke up. Mason Rudolph might not be as forgiving. In three of Oklahoma State’s last four games, the scoring attack has recorded a red-zone touchdown conversion rate of at least 75 percent. As long as he takes advantage of drives that reach the Texas 20, the Pokes will quiet any talk of an upset.
Cam Akers, running back, Florida State
Louisville just ceded 364 rushing yards to Boston College. Cam Akers could have an enormous day for Florida State. The freshman scampered for 121 yards against Miami and 115 opposite Duke, taking a couple of important steps toward locking down the starting position. Jacques Patrick gives the ‘Noles a powerful one-two punch, but Akers is a rising star. And with a true freshman in James Blackman under center, any yardage covered on the ground reduces the burden on him to keep up with Louisville star Lamar Jackson. That’s not a situation Blackman is prepared to handle. Akers, however, can help the ‘Noles steadily move the ball.
Malik Rosier, quarterback, Miami
In back-to-back thrilling finishes, Malik Rosier did just enough to win late. Miami deserves more credit for finding a way to escape Florida State and Georgia Tech, but the ‘Canes also wouldn’t be in such stressful spots if Rosier didn’t struggle so much early. Through five games, the junior has 492 passing yards in the first half. During the third quarter alone, Rosier has amassed 519. Miami should beat a visiting Syracuse team, but few anticipated Clemson would struggle with the Orange. Should this trend not change, the ‘Canes could be playing from behind yet again. And at some point, Rosier’s magic might run out.
Michigan State’s running backs
Remove a contest against an FCS school, and Indiana has alternated between poor and excellent run defense. Last week, the Hoosiers gave up 271 yards in an overtime loss to Michigan. Yet this is also the same unit that limited Penn State standout Saquon Barkley to just 56 yards. LJ Scott finally broke out of his slump with a 194-yard outburst during Week 7, so MSU must be hoping that type of production continues even on a lesser scale. Granted, his status is a bit questionable after he was arrested for driving with a suspended license. But whether it’s Scott, Gerald Holmes or Madre London, the Spartans need the running backs to control a tricky game.
Zach Abey, quarterback, Navy
Heading into Week 7, we said turnovers would be a key factor in Navy’s game against Memphis. The Midshipmen proceeded to cede possession five times in a 30-27 loss. The story remains the same for Zach Abey and Co. when it hosts Central Florida, undoubtedly the hottest Group of Five team in the country. Navy’s defense probably won’t be able to contain McKenzie Milton and the prolific scoring attack, so Abey faces the challenging task of trying to match pace on the scoreboard. He’ll only succeed if the Mids control the clock, limit possessions and — again — protect the football.
Baker Mayfield, quarterback, Oklahoma
Oklahoma is sensational at reaching midfield. What happens after that, though, is rarely consistent. The Sooners boast a 74.1 red-zone touchdown rate, but too many possessions have stalled between the 50 and the opponent’s 20. Since Kansas State has a relatively stingy defense, this is a perfect opportunity for Baker Mayfield to prove this issue won’t be one any longer. And with Oklahoma set to enter a decisive stretch, it must happen. Texas Tech, Oklahoma State and TCU could each put 35-plus points on the Sooners, so wasting touchdown chances in those matchups could be the difference between a win and loss.
Derrius Guice, running back, LSU
Derrius Guice started fast but steadily tapered off. He topped the 100-yard barrier in LSU’s first two games and collected 224 yards combined. But over his last four appearances, the junior has mustered 211 — also missing a game during that span. However, the Tigers have a bit of renewed energy following close wins against Florida and Auburn. Perhaps those victories will serve as a spark for Guice and the offensive line, which has an appealing matchup with Ole Miss — the nation’s 118th-ranked run defense. Because this SEC tilt is also LSU’s final outing before facing Alabama, it couldn’t hurt to enter preparation for the Crimson Tide on a high note.
Devin Bush Jr., linebacker, Michigan
Devin Bush has showed he’s capable of tracking down any play, and Michigan desperately needs him to show that ability Saturday night. Barkley stresses defenses from sideline to sideline, and a breakdown in coverage can result in a huge gain. Considering the problems the Wolverines have encountered on offense this season, they’re not built to play from behind. Bush isn’t the only defender who will be tasked with tracking Barkley, but between run fits and pass coverage, the sophomore will play an integral role in Michigan’s attempt to slow the Heisman Trophy contender.
Trace McSorley, quarterback, Penn State
Over the last two matchups with Penn State, Michigan has registered 10 sacks and nine pass breakups while constantly pressuring the quarterback. Trace McSorley experienced it last year when he notched season-low marks of 121 yards and 4.5 yards per attempt during a 49-10 loss. Revenge is a strong word, but redemption is in order for McSorley if he’s smart with the football. That extends beyond making wise decisions with his passes, like taking a sack instead of trying to be a hero. One bad interception and a lost fumble could lead to Michigan’s defense changing the game, not just keeping it close.
Sam Darnold, quarterback, USC
In Week 7, Sam Darnold didn’t throw an interception for the first time in seven appearances this season. He posted 358 yards and three touchdowns to help USC clip Utah. Now, can he protect the ball when it matters most during a road trip to Notre Dame? The rivalry clash will likely come down to the fourth quarter, and Darnold will be under immense pressure to avoid a crushing mistake. How he handles the moment will determine whether USC stays alive in the College Football Playoff picture. A second loss would just about eliminate the Trojans from the discussion, barring utter chaos down the stretch.
Equanimeous St. Brown, wide receiver, Notre Dame
Notre Dame understandably relied on its rushing attack through the first half of the campaign, riding Josh Adams and Brandon Wimbush to a 5-1 start. But that’s not going to be enough during a treacherous close to the season. Equanimeous St. Brown — who tallied 58 receptions, 961 yards and nine touchdowns in 2016 — has only grabbed 15 passes for 211 yards and two scores this year. He made just two catches for 16 yards in the early loss to Georgia. USC has plenty of talent in the secondary, but the unit hasn’t played up to its collective ability. If St. Brown can take advantage, the Irish will remain in the CFP conversation for another week.
John Wolford, quarterback, Wake Forest
Wake Forest stuck with Clemson despite missing its starting quarterback. After a bye week, John Wolford is ready to return. The senior had played the best football of his college career before a shoulder injury sidelined him in Week 6. As long as that doesn’t hamper Wolford, Georgia Tech is on upset alert. He’s recorded career-high clips of 8.1 yards per attempt and a 63.2 completion percentage, also leading the Demon Deacons with 332 rushing yards. Wake’s defense should contain the Jackets, so Wolford needs to provide the winning boost.
Kenny Hill, quarterback, TCU
Yes, Kansas has been a laughingstock in the Big 12 lately. On paper, you’d expect this meeting to favor TCU heavily. Yet the Jayhawks have been a weird thorn for Gary Patterson’s club since 2014, forcing three straight one-possession finishes. It’d be awfully embarrassing for the TCU hype to die against the Jayhawks, who nearly beat the Horned Frogs in 2016 because Kenny Hill tossed three interceptions. The senior has thrived in a system built around efficient distribution, and the game plan ought to work Saturday night. Provided the old playmaker doesn’t try to make an appearance, TCU will navigate its thorn.
Josh Allen, quarterback, Wyoming
Considered a toolsy NFL draft prospect by some and a mess by others, Josh Allen has become a polarizing figure. And a matchup with Boise State is his final opportunity to make a positive, meaningful statement in 2017. Wyoming’s remaining schedule consists of New Mexico, Colorado State, Air Force, Fresno State and San Jose State. Encouraging performances in those games won’t overshadow problems Allen had against Iowa and Oregon. If Boise State is added to that list, it’ll be tougher for scouts to overlook his poor on-field play opposite top competition.
Rashaad Penny, running back, San Diego State
Boise State handed San Diego State its first loss of the season, but Rashaad Penny and Co. remain in a favorable spot to set up a rematch in the conference championship. It requires a win in Week 8. Fresno State enters the showdown at 3-0 in Mountain West play, and a victory would give the Bulldogs a two-loss advantage plus the tiebreaker over SDSU. Since an expected loss at Alabama, Fresno State has surrendered a mere three yards per carry. Until last week, Penny had eclipsed 100 yards in every game this season. The Aztecs must run effectively early to put themselves back in position to win the West Division.
Luke Falk, quarterback, Washington State
Name the stat category, and it was a disaster for Washington State in the beatdown at Cal. Luke Falk threw five interceptions and lost a fumble while the offense as a whole managed three total points in three red-zone chances and finished 4-of-16 on third down. Yes, the Cougs are still a factor in the chase for a Pac-12 championship. But it’s worth wondering if a second straight loss could send their season into a spiral, since the final month includes Stanford, Utah and Washington. Falk needs to shake the poor performance in a hurry.