Top storylines heading into college football Week 9

The impact of the games set to be played in college football Week 9 will have huge ramifications on the rest of the season, and the playoff picture.

In particular, the slate of games beginning at 3:30 p.m. ET are going to have fans nationally watching split screens and/or working the remote like mad. Conference rivalry games highlight the schedule, and we would be shocked if they didn’t produce at least a couple big upsets.

These are the top questions we’re looking forward to getting answers to, and the top storylines heading into college football Week 9.

Will Bryce Love play on Thursday night?

Only Heisman favorite Saquon Barkley has more all-purpose yards than Bryce Love in the entire FBS, unless you’re counting quarterbacks. And Barkley has return yardage working in his favor. When it comes to pure yards from scrimmage on offense, nobody is touching this Cardinal. Love has rushed for 1,387 yards and 11 touchdowns in seven games, averaging an absurd 10.7 yards per carry, which also leads the nation.

That average will likely increase Thursday night, if Love can play. He’s dealing with an ankle injury and has not been practicing. Head coach David Shaw said Love could play, even if he doesn’t practice. If he plays, he’ll have a field day against Oregon State, which features one of the worst run defenses in college football (No. 100). We’re expecting Stanford to absolutely romp in this one as Love (hopefully) runs over, around and through the Beavers.

Can FSU stop the bleeding against Boston College?

Jimbo Fisher

The 2017 season has been absolutely brutal for Jimbo Fisher and Co. The Seminoles were kicked to the curb on national television in Week 1 by Alabama and lost their superstar quarterback for the season in the process.

It’s all been downhill since then. FSU is 2-4, and its only wins were last-minute affairs against teams nobody would consider to be powerhouses. The latest loss, to Louisville, has the fan base and Fisher himself riled up, and not in a good way.

Friday night, Florida State will be on the road to face a Boston College team that can be formidable. The Eagles have won two in a row, beating Virginia and Louisville. So, it’s going to be very interesting to see what the Seminoles do on a short week after losing on a last-second field goal, falling into a pit of despair matched only one other time in the past 40 years.

Wisconsin and Miami might as well be on a bye

It’s always possible that an extreme underdog pulls off an upset. We get that. Clemson gets that. Washington State gets that. Washington gets that.

But let’s be honest, Wisconsin is going to run right through Illinois’ paper-thin defense en route to a blowout win. Miami is going to wipe the floor with a North Carolina squad that has but one win to its credit, against Old Dominion, no less.

These two top-10 teams are going to cruise through Week 9 like it’s an all-inclusive Mediterranean cruise.

Barnburner on horizon as West Virginia looks to upset Oklahoma State

After squeaking by Texas in overtime last weekend, scoring just 13 points, it’s safe to say Oklahoma State is eager to face West Virginia’s less than stingy defense. The same can be said for the Mountaineers, who’ll be eager to attack the Cowboys. Their defense showed chinks in the defensive armor against TCU.

Will Grier’s offense has been putting up points in bunches lately. The former Florida quarterback has thrown 10 touchdowns and just one interception the past two weeks. He also leads the FBS with 26 total passing touchdowns.

Mason Rudolph was shut out personally last weekend, throwing no touchdowns for the first time since the Oklahoma game last year in early December. Given his insane arsenal of offensive talent, and the fact that West Virginia’s passing defense is prone to getting lit up like a late-summer field of weeds after a lightning strike, he’ll bounce back nicely.

This game is going to be all about which quarterback can avoid the critical mistake, as we expect a ton of scoring from both teams.

How far down the rabbit hole will Michigan go?

Overrated. That’s the one word that describes the 2017 Michigan Wolverines. We’ve been pointing out this fact even before the season began, and it’s become crystal clear the past few weeks. Michigan is an overtime win over Indiana away from being 0-3 in its last three games. And the butt-kicking it endured this past weekend against Penn State was eye opening.

Now the Wolverines have to rebound. Thankfully their task in Week 9 is very manageable, as Rutgers is coming to Ann Arbor and has no business winning. But that doesn’t matter to Michigan. It’s a must-win game. Lose this one and there will be no coming back.

Will Baylor finally win its first game of the season against Texas?

Baylor head coach Matt Rhule

Matt Rhule’s first season at the helm of the embattled Baylor football program has been miserable. The Bears have come awfully close to winning a few games, including against Oklahoma and West Virginia (last weekend). But so far, they have fallen short at every turn and come into Week 9 with an 0-7 record. And now they’ll be hosting Texas, which has been very scrappy ever since losing in Week 1 to Maryland.

Texas is favored to win by more than a touchdown, and it should be. The Longhorns might be without quarterback Sam Ehlinger, however, as he’s dealing with a concussion.

Baylor’s big challenge will be going up against a much improved Longhorns defense that darn near pitched a shutout last weekend against one of the best offenses in the nation. Quarterback Zach Smith, who was so sharp against Oklahoma, needs to have a big game to give the Bears their first win of the year.

Action Jackson against the Demon Deacons

Wake Forest cannot be underestimated. The Demon Deacons feature an underrated defense that’s allowed under 20 points per game. And given Louisville’s defensive troubles, Lamar Jackson has to be amazing every week for his team to win.

It’s an interesting game to look at. Wake Forest’s balanced offense has lost just four turnovers all year, which is good for No. 2 in the nation. Meanwhile, Louisville ranks No. 96 in the same category, having coughed up 14 turnovers this year.

Lamar Jackson is spectacular. He’s the reason the Cardinals have five wins this year. But he often overreaches because the rest of his team — especially the defense — isn’t good. If Wake Forest can grind out drives, stay on the field and keep the pressure on, Jackson is prone to make that critical mistake under pressure.

Can Florida spoil Georgia’s party?

Jim McElwain’s Gators have been underwhelming this year, to say the least. They come into Week 9 with a record of 3-3, sporting one of the least imposing offenses in the entire nation. Since winning three in a row against Tennessee, Kentucky and Vanderbilt, Florida has lost its last two by a combined total of three points to LSU and Texas A&M.

McElwain says he, his players and staff have gotten death threats recently due to the way this season has played out. Needless to say, this is a team that has many reasons to show up big Saturday against Georgia.

But let’s be honest, unless some strange stuff goes down, Georgia is going to win. The Bulldogs have been bulldozing opponents this year. Since beating Notre Dame by one point in September, every game has been a blowout win. Utilizing a devastating mixture of running the ball offensively and stifling defense, Georgia is beating its opponents by an average score of 38-13.

Iowa State gets to make another statement

Iowa State quarterback Kyle Kempt in college football Week 6

Since taking down Oklahoma, Iowa State has made it clear that win was no fluke. The Cyclones shut out Kansas and then made mincemeat out of an explosive Texas Tech squad. Quarterback Kyle Kempt, who was the team’s third-string passer at the start of that Oklahoma game, has seized his chance, throwing seven touchdowns and just one interception in the past three games — all wins for the Cyclones.

Now this upstart team gets to really make a statement. The No. 4 ranked team in the nation is sauntering into Jack Trice Stadium this Saturday, and TCU is a formidable opponent, indeed. Scoring over 41 points per game and allowing under 15, the Horned Frogs have already taken down the likes of Oklahoma State and West Virginia. It’s going to be fun watching these two Big 12 teams duke it out Saturday afternoon in Ames.

Notre Dame’s road to playoff blocked by scrappy NC State

One week removed from taking USC behind the woodshed, the Fighting Irish are faced with perhaps an even sterner test. NC State has won six straight games since being slapped by South Carolina in Week 1, and the Wolfpack can bite just as hard as they bark.

The big battle will be between NC State’s potent defense and Notre Dame’s ground-and-pound offense. Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush and running back Josh Adams are as dynamic a duo in the backfield as you’re going to find in the FBS. The two of them have combined to rush for 1,475 yards and were unstoppable last weekend against the Trojans.

If NC State’s defense can hold these two stars to minimal gains, then the Wolfpack have a legitimate chance to win. Quarterback Ryan Finley has yet to throw a single interception this year, and the Wolfpack lead the nation with just three giveaways.

This game is must-see-TV (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC) for anyone interested in watching a couple of legitimate playoff contenders clash. Whoever loses will assuredly be out of the running for that four-team playoff. While the winner will have even more strength heading into the first CFP rankings on Nov. 1.

Can UCLA find a way to upset Washington?

Having had an extra week to recover from being upset by Arizona State in Week 7, Washington will be in position to potentially romp Saturday at home against UCLA. The Bruins feature a defense that is worse than all but eight FBS teams in terms of yardage allowed and that gives up over 36 points per game.

The only way UCLA wins this game is if Josh Rosen puts on a magical performance. He’s been less than stellar since Week 2. In the five games since, Rosen has thrown 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions, and the Bruins have won just twice.

Because Washington features such a lethal defense, we’re expecting a blowout win for the home team.

Michigan State will have its hands full once againĀ 

Since being humbled by Notre Dame a handful of weeks back, Michigan State has won four in a row and surprised the nation by taking down Michigan. Those four wins, however, were attained with a margin of just 5.5 points per game. We’re looking at another slugfest for the Spartans in Week 9, too, that will require some more of that same mental fortitude that’s carried the club this past month.

Northwestern, at home, will be all Michigan State can handle. The Wildcats gave Wisconsin a fight to the finish a few weeks back, held Penn State’s potent offense to just 10 points in the first half the week after and have won their last two games to improve to 4-3 on the season.

Mark Dantonio’s offense must not turn the ball over. LJ Scott and Madre London must be the focal point of the offense, and the defense has to be stout up front. If the Spartans can do these things, then they’ll improve to 7-1 on the season.

South Florida has its work cut out to stay undefeated

The Bulls have flown way under the radar as one of the handful of undefeated teams in college football. It’s understandable. South Florida hasn’t faced a single ranked team, and preseason dark horse Heisman candidate Quinton Flowers hasn’t been able to remain in the spotlight for his individual performances.

This weekend, however, the Bulls are facing their sternest test of the season. Houston isn’t as formidable as it’s been in years past, but the Cougars do have some talent defensively and could shock South Florida with a hot start offensively. We’re not predicting an upset, but we also won’t be surprised if it happens. The Bulls need to stay sharp to avoid being taken down a few pegs.

UCF should cruise as it looks to keep pace with the Bulls

As South Florida attempts to stay undefeated in the American Athletic conference, it’s chief rival for the top spot will be hosting a cupcake party against Austin Peay.

The Knights, who handily dispatched Navy last weekend, 31-21, have one of the most explosive offenses in the nation and have held opponents to under 18 points per game. This is the team that has the best chance in the Group of Five to barge into the playoff conversation. And this weekend provides nothing more than a speed bump on the highway to success.

Potential trap game for Virginia Tech against Duke

In a vacuum, there’s no way Duke — a team that’s lost four straight — will come into Blacksburg and take down the Hokies Saturday evening. It’s not happening. Yet…There’s a real phenomenon that plagues good teams sometimes when easy games come before contests that have been circled on the calendar all year long. It’s called a trap game.

The Hokies are going to be heading into Florida next weekend to take on the Miami Hurricanes, who enter Week 9 undefeated atop the ACC Coastal division. Head coach Justin Fuente must instill discipline and a razor’s edge of focus into his team to avoid falling into this trap.

Tricky out for Clemson in first game back from upset loss to Syracuse

Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant

Clemson should win Saturday at home against Georgia Tech. But it’s not going to be easy, and after Syracuse took it took the Tigers before their bye, it’s clear this defense isn’t as indomitable as it appeared earlier in the season.

The Yellow Jackets offer a particularly intense challenge to every defense they face. That triple option nearly took down Miami a couple weeks back. And given the fact that Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant still isn’t quite 100-percent healthy and has been turnover prone recently, this game might be a heck of a lot closer than people expect.

Will Oklahoma’s defense continue to prove problematic?

How many times has Baker Mayfield bailed out his defense this year already? He did it last weekend in a narrow win over Kansas State, and he did it the week before against Texas. In total, Mayfield has had to lead three comeback wins, and he was unable to do it against Iowa State. The big reason he’s had to do so much heavy lifting at the end of games is that Oklahoma’s defense has been, quite honestly, awful.

Since the Baylor game, the Sooners have allowed an average of 34.5 points per game. Now this unit will be up against a Texas Tech offense that averages over 40 points per game. So far this year, Mayfield’s unbelievable ability to come through in the clutch is the only thing that’s kept the Sooners above .500.

Another dud of a performance by Oklahoma’s defense could prove to be a death knell to the team’s playoff aspirations.

Desert battle between the cats

Beware. Beware the Wildcats of Arizona. Luke Falk, beware.

The Cougars of Washington State have already been upset once this year, on the road against Cal Berkley. That was extremely unexpected.

A loss to the Wildcats, however, wouldn’t be so shocking. Rich Rodriguez’s squad can put up points with the best of them and piles up yardage by the truckload. In fact, Arizona averages nearly 10 more points per game than the Cougars.

Pac-12 after dark in the desert tends to get a little bit freaky. We won’t be surprised whatsoever if Falk has a bad game while Khalil Tate and Co. get going on the ground, running away with the victory.

Can ASU pull off another huge Pac-12 upset?

USC Trojans quarterback Sam Darnold college football

USC is going to have its hands full Saturday night going up against Arizona State. The Sun Devils have won their last two games, upsetting Washington in Week 7 and then taking down Utah last weekend. Meanwhile, the Trojans have really struggled to find any cohesion on offense all year long. Sam Darnold has the yips and has turned the ball over 15 times. It’s to the point where it’s being reported he’s going to come back in 2018 because his NFL stock has slipped.

Notre Dame ran all over USC’s defense last weekend, and ASU could do the same. Don’t be surprised if the Trojans are sent back to Southern California with their second straight loss, and their third in their last five games.

Big Ten showdown in ColumbusĀ 

You didn’t think we’d forget about the biggest game of college football Week 9, did you?

Penn State, fresh off its magnificent blowout win at home over Michigan, gets to hit the road this Saturday for an afternoon matchup against rival Ohio State. The same Ohio State team that is still smarting from last year’s narrow loss to the Nittany Lions. A loss that ended up being the only blemish on the Buckeyes’ record until getting blanked by Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl.

So there’s the revenge factor at play. Then there is the pure star power of this game.

Can J.T. Barrett continue to throw touchdowns at a prodigious pace? Can Saquon Barkley continue to pile up yardage and touchdowns like a chipmunk storing food for the long winter? Will we get the sharp, dynamic Trace McSorley who took over last Saturday’s game in the second half, or will he succumb to the turnover bug? Can either team’s dynamic defense come up with a critical score that turns the tide of the game in favor of their team?

This game should live up to all the hype, and then some. Heck, the Buckeyes are even breaking out some strange alternate uniforms for this one.

This scribe, for one, thinks Penn State will remain undefeated when it’s all said and done.