There are only five weeks of college football’s regular season left. We are in crunch time. There is no more time for learning what teams are, experimenting, or shrugging off losses. Every game is a must win. There are 16 teams left with a realistic chance of making the playoff. (For these purposes, we’re defining a realistic chance as a power-five school with one loss or fewer).
Everyone else is duking it out for divisional crowns — the chance to play spoiler –, a good bowl game, or bowl eligibility. These upcoming Saturday games are what we live for as fans of the sport. Here are college football’s studs and duds for Week 9.
The Badgers probably aren’t one of the four best teams in the country, but they have the best chance of anyone to sneak into the playoff based solely on schedule. Wisconsin has rolled through their first seven games, the only two relatively close affairs coming against Northwestern and Purdue.
On the docket this week is a trip to Illinois. Assuming Wisconsin’s defensive front — which ranks eighth in run defense S&P+ — can slow down Mike Epstein, this is an easy win. The next four games are all moderately difficult, but when the toughest is a home game against a reeling Michigan squad, it’s fair to say the Badgers have a pretty good shot at running the table.
Dud: West Virginia
The Mountaineers are a cute pick this week with Oklahoma State coming into Morgantown off a less-than-convincing performance at Texas last week. Don’t get cute. West Virginia has enough offensive firepower to keep this one close for a while, but there’s just no way the defense can slow down Mason Rudolph and Co.
It is not an easy task to find a defensive stat where the Mountaineers don’t struggle. West Virginia doesn’t get pressure, it bleeds explosive plays, it’s inefficient, it’s bad on third down. The whole nine yards. Oklahoma State doesn’t have the best defense in the country, but the Cowboys are 35th in defensive S&P+. The Mountaineers: 102nd.
The Hurricanes won’t just win this week, they’ll look like a top-10 team. On the road against 1-7 North Carolina, that means dominating in a way Miami couldn’t against Florida State, Georgia Tech, or even Syracuse. All of those were one-score games. This will not be. The Hurricanes can outclass North Carolina in every facet of the game. They should be able to gain some momentum as they barrel towards Virginia Tech and Notre Dame.
The Longhorns should be on upset watch this week at 0-7 Baylor. This is undoubtedly a trap game for Texas, which comes off games against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State and has TCU next week. Tom Herman’s squad won’t be thinking much about this and it could bite them. If the Bears can connect on a couple big plays in the air, they’ll notch their first win of the year.
Stud: Wake Forest
Outside of the quarterback position, there isn’t a single area where Louisville has an advantage over Wake Forest this week. The Demon Deacons have a top-25 defense by S&P+ and an efficient passing game on offense. As hard as it is to contain Lamar Jackson, there’s only so much one player can do. Wake Forest has lost three in a row, but they should win one here.
Dud: Iowa State
The Cyclones have had an unreal three-week run and jumped into the top-25. They’ve crushed expectations on the year and will likely continue to do so. But they won’t beat their second top-4 team of the season this week. Iowa State is like a poor man’s TCU insofar as being a well-rounded team in the Big 12. The problem with that is the Cyclones are still worse than the Horned Frogs on both sides of the ball. TCU will stay unbeaten this week.
Stud: Ohio State
Despite having a loss, Ohio State still leads the country in S&P+. It’s at home against Penn State this week in what serves as a de-facto elimination game in the Big Ten East and the Buckeyes will likely win. As good as Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is, the Nittany Lions’ offensive line ranks 50th in adjusted line yards, per Football Study Hall. The Buckeyes lead the country in defensive line havoc rate, also per Football Study Hall. If they can neutralize Barkley, Penn State’s offense is going to wilt in Columbus.
Dud: Notre Dame
The Fighting Irish passed a major test with flying colors last week, crushing USC 49-14 in South Bend. They get another tough opponent this week in NC State and this one won’t be as easy. Notre Dame is 50th in adjusted sack rate, per Football Study Hall, so blocking edge rusher Bradley Chubb may be a task too tall for the Fighting Irish.
The Wolfpack are a very quiet 6-1, which means this is an elimination game for the playoff, in a sense. They’ve got an advantage on the sidelines with Dave Doeren. NC State will jump into the national conversation with an upset this Saturday.
Stud: Nick Chubb, running back, Georgia
The Bulldogs are heavy favorites against rival Florida this week, to nobody’s surprise. Expect Chubb to have a big day. The Gators rank 106th in containing explosive plays on the ground, per Football Study Hall. That doesn’t bode well as they get set to face Chubb, who comes into this game averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Georgia’s offense is fifth in rushing explosiveness, per Football Study Hall. This is as lopsided a matchup as they come.
Dud: Josh Rosen, quarterback, UCLA
This week is perhaps the biggest test Rosen will have all season, as UCLA travels to Seattle to face the second-ranked defense in the country by S&P+. Though Rosen has played well the past few weeks, he’s still displayed inconsistencies. The junior isn’t good enough to go into Washington and play at the highest level. Expect disappointment for the Bruins this week.
The Golden Gophers’ trip to Iowa this weekend is quietly a game to watch. Minnesota had its best offensive performance in conference play last week in a win against Illinois, but a loss here would be a big hit to their bowl hopes. Running back Kobe McCrary went for 153 yards, a season-high last week. If that game can function as a turning point for the Gophers, they’ll follow it up with a win this week. Iowa poses little threat to Minnesota on defense. All the Gophers need for the win is some sort of run game.
Dud: South Florida
Houston is the best team the Bulls face until their last game of the year, against Central Florida. USF will struggle to move the ball here, as the Cougars have a good pass defense, especially when it comes to explosive plays. Houston will slow down quarterback Quinton Flowers and with him, the Bulls’ offense. South Florida will take its first loss on Saturday.
The Wildcats crashed down to earth last week, as Mississippi State walloped them to the tune of 45-7. Luckily for Kentucky, they get an awful, reeling, Tennessee at home this week. Right now, it’s hard to imagine the Vols beating anybody, let alone a Kentucky team which has quietly beaten expectations. Kentucky should notch a win and with it, earn bowl eligibility.
Dud: Butch Jones, head coach, Tennessee
At this point, it’s more a matter of when than if. Not only are some sportsbooks offering odds on who will be Tennessee’s head coach next year, but Jones isn’t even listed. The Vols have been embarrassed three weeks in a row. If they lose this week, it seems impossible that Jones survives.
Clemson has had two full weeks to stew on its loss to Syracuse. They won’t let it happen again. The Tigers are one of the best teams in the country when it comes to run defense. Perhaps no team in the ACC is better-equipped to take on Georgia Tech’s triple-option. Clemson made the playoff and won the national championship with a loss on their record last season. No doubt they’ll be trying to do the same starting this week.
In three games since starting quarterback Justin Herbert went down, the Ducks have scored 31 points. Total. This offense is flat-out hard to watch with Braxton Burmeister under center. There’s no way Oregon will manage to move the ball against Utah, a solid defense, this week. The Utes can load up the box and dare Burmeister to throw it. If Herbert isn’t back soon, Oregon may have to start worrying about whether it can get to six wins.
Don’t discount the Sooners’ chances of making a run/ Oklahoma has the top-ranked offense in the country by S&P+ and perhaps the most impressive win of any playoff contender, beating the Buckeyes in Columbus. They get Texas Tech at home this week and will put that No. 1 offense to work. The Red Raiders are simply awful on defense. They have no hope to contain Baker Mayfield on the road. Oklahoma should get some momentum heading into two must-win games against Oklahoma State and TCU.
Arizona State has been a tough place for Pac-12 teams to play this year. The Sun Devils knocked off Oregon (with Herbert) and Washington at home this season. Now, it’s the Trojans’ turn. USC is limping into this one after being shellacked by Notre Dame last week. An upset is far from out of the question here, as USC has struggled in every road game they’ve played this year. We could see a letdown game from the Trojans here.
Stud: Washington State
The Cougars got back on track last week by handily beating Colorado 28-0 last week. Now, with three top-40 teams on the slate in the run-up to the Apple Cup, we’ll see what this team is made of. This scribe is confident they can stay in it. Normally, a Mike Leach-led team, on the road, against an Arizona team that ranks 15th in offensive S&P+ is an underdog. But this year’s Washington State is different, ranking 12th in defensive S&P+. They can slow down the Wildcats’ offense, then turn around and put Leach’s air raid to good use.
The Wildcats are a tempting upset pick this week at home against Michigan State. But the fact of the matter is that Northwestern just won’t be able to score against Sparty. Michigan State ranks third in the country in defensive S&P+. Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson is going to struggle badly against this unit. He’s thrown more interceptions than touchdowns this year against worse defenses than this one. The Spartans should go into their do-or-die matchup with Penn State next week with playoff dreams still alive.