Top 10 storylines for college football Week 9

We’ve got some heavy hitters lining up head-to-head in college football Week 9, and it the outcomes will shape the national landscape in a big way.

The biggest game of the weekend takes place Saturday night when the Clemson Tigers play the Florida State Seminoles away from the comfort of Death Valley. Ohio State has a huge game against Northwestern it must win to avoid a two-game skid. We’ll also find out what Nebraska is made of when the Huskers take on Wisconsin.

These big games are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to college football content in Week 9. We’ll take a look at what to expect in them, along with the other top storylines to follow this weekend.

1. Can FSU hand Clemson its first loss?

College football Week 9, Dalvin Cook

These two ACC powerhouses met up around the same time last year in Death Valley. Clemson escaped with a 10-point win, thanks to a 10-point fourth quarter. Dalvin Cook gashed the Tigers’ defense for 194 yards on the ground, but Deshaun Watson caught fire late to rally his team.

Now No. 12 Florida State is hosting No. 3 Clemson with revenge on the mind. Tigers head coach Dabo Swinney knows it’ll be a huge test for his program.

“They’re just typical Florida State,” Swinney said, per the Orlando Sentinel. “They’re a very good football team. I know that this will be a huge challenge for us to go down there and do something we haven’t done there in a long time.”

Clemson has won in Tallahassee just three times before, the last win coming in 2006. Needless to say, things could get crazy in this one.

If Florida State’s defense can corral Watson, running back Wayne Gallman and Co., then the Seminoles have a real shot to win. Unfortunately for them, their defense isn’t as dominant this year as we’ve seen in seasons past and is allowing nearly 29 points per game.

The Tigers haven’t been nearly as dominant overall this year compared to last, either. The narrow win over a NC State team that was buried by Louisville is a good example.

It should be a close game between these two teams in prime time Saturday night. A loss wouldn’t be catastrophic for the Tigers, but it would sure make things interesting the rest of the way.

2. Now we can find out if Nebraska is for real

Sep 26, 2015; Madison, WI, USA; General view of the Wisconsin logo at midfield of Camp Randall Stadium prior to the game against the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Going undefeated to this point in the season is no small task, even if you haven’t really played a top team. That’s certainly the case for No. 7 Nebraska. We’ve been highly skeptical the Cornhuskers are truly a top-10 team ever since they struggled to beat Oregon at home early in the season.

We’re about to find out what Nebraska is made of as the program heads into Camp Randall for a Big Ten slugfest against one of the conference’s giants. The last time these two squads met up in 2014, the No. 11-ranked Badgers smashed the Huskers to bits, winning 59-24.

Nebraska quarterback Tommy Armstrong is convinced things will be different this time around.

“This is a totally different team than 2014,” Armstrong said, via landof10.com. “Can’t compare that team to this one.”

That may be well and true. But Wisconsin is on another level than any other team Nebraska has faced, despite its two losses. Featuring a run defense that smothers every rushing attack it faces and featuring a relentless pass rush, the Badgers should make life miserable for Armstrong all game long.

Furthermore, Wisconsin running back Corey Clement is an excellent complement to freshman quarterback Alex Hornibrook. The duo should be able to move the chains and score often enough to make this a one-sided game.

3. Will the Huskies keep rolling in Salt Lake City?

The No. 4-ranked Huskies have been blasting the Pac 12 with a potent blend of offensive diversity and defensive dominance. Undefeated at this point, winning by an average score of 48-15, it’s safe to wonder if they’ll even be challenged in any game this year.

If it’s going to happen, it’ll probably happen this weekend in Salt Lake City when Washington takes on No. 19 Utah.

The Utes have lost but one contest this year — a shootout in Berkley against a red-hot Davis Webb. While they haven’t been blowing teams out like their upcoming opponent, they have found ways to win close games. That kind of experience could prove valuable this Saturday.

Both teams featured top-flight defensive lines and are the top-two teams in the Pac 12 in scoring defense, total defense, rushing defense and opponent first downs, as pointed out by ESPN’s Eric McKinney.

We’re picking the Huskies to keep their winning streak alive in Utah, but it’s not going to be an easy win. Heisman candidate, quarterback Jake Browning, must not press against the Utes’ opportunistic defense — one that has forced 22 turnovers already this year to lead the nation.

If he can continue his nearly unerring play (just two interceptions all year), Browning will keep Washington’s College Football Playoff hopes alive.

4. Can Wyoming play spoiler to Boise State playoff dreams?

Brett Rypien

Both Wyoming and No. 3 Boise State have a perfect 3-0 in conference play, and the Cowboys would love nothing more than to knock the Broncos off their perch as the top dog in the Mountain West Mountain division.

That said, it’s worth pointing out that Boise State is considered to be a two-touchdown favorite to win.

The past two weekends, No. 13 Boise State has practically begged teams to pull off an upset. Colorado State and BYU — teams that really should have no business beating the Broncos — were vanquished by a total of six points.

The Broncos were lucky to stay undefeated in both games. Perhaps that is why head coach Bryan Harsin tweeted this message Tuesday morning.

Continuing the habit of allowing lesser teams to threaten victory will absolutely one day lead to a loss.

They will need to be sharper than they’ve been this weekend on the road against a Wyoming squad that is eager to take the top spot in the Mountain division. A win will keep their New Year’s Six bowl bid alive (and potentially a College Football Playoff berth). A loss would act as a torpedo to sink both dreams.

5. How will the Buckeyes respond against tough Northwestern squad?

J.T. Barrett

Penn State’s 24-21 victory over now-No. 6 Ohio State in Happy Valley last Saturday night was one of the biggest upsets of the year. It was simply stunning how it all unfolded, with Ohio State kicker Tyler Durbin having his potentially game-sealing field goal blocked and returned for a touchdown (watch here).

That Penn State was in this one to begin with was something that shouldn’t have happened. But like Clemson, Ohio had played with fire a few times this year and ended up getting burned.

Addressing the media on Monday, head coach Urban Meyer discussed the pain of losing the way his team did.

“A bunch of players are hurting, a bunch of coaches are hurting but this is the most time I’ll spend on this today. We want to put that thing to bed,” Meyer said, per elevenwarriors.com.

Now the Buckeyes head back home to take on a hot Northwestern squad that had rattled off three straight games by an average score of 39-28.

In particular, the Wildcats have been pounding the rock of late. During their three-game streak, they’re averaging 177 yards on the ground, with Justin Jackson piling up 453 yards in those games.

Ohio State sports one of the nation’s tougher run defenses, allowing just 3.23 yards per carry and just two total touchdowns on the year. One of those came last weekend when Trace McSorley punched a hole into the end zone.

Needless to say, it’s time for the Buckeyes to buckle down and play their best football. Losing one game won’t doom their College Football Playoff hopes, but losing two most certainly will. On top of that, they still have a date with Michigan looming at the end of the season, and the Wolverines are fierce.

6. Auburn with a tough road game against Ole Miss

Fresh off a monumental booty-kicking 56-3 win at home against Arkansas, the red-hot No. 15-ranked Tigers have a different test awaiting them in Week 9.

Chad Kelly

The Ole Miss Rebels, even at 3-4, are among the more dangerous teams in the nation. You never know when quarterback Chad Kelly is going to absolutely go off, and the Rebels will be back at home after two brutal, closely-contested road losses to Arkansas and LSU.

Gus Malzahn better have his offense ready to put up points once again, and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele must have a scheme to keep Kelly in check.

The Auburn head coach called Kelly one of the most “explosive” quarterbacks in the SEC. “He’s like a running back playing the quarterback position,” he said, per AL.com.

Despite sporting a losing record, the Rebels are still plus-39 on the year in point differential. They’re a tricky opponent that will stay competitive all game long. If Auburn is to continue rocketing up the rankings following its early-season heart-breaking losses to Clemson and Texas A&M, a victory Saturday must obviously be attained.

7. Can Georgia upset SEC rival Florida?

College football week 9, Nick Chubb

It’s been a disappointing season for Georgia and its fans. Starting out as the No. 18-ranked team in the preseason AP poll, the Bulldogs have lost three games already and haven’t taken down a ranked team since Week 1.

While the season hasn’t worked out the way they hoped, the Bulldogs can still play spoiler and upset some teams that are trending upwards at this point. They’ll start on this road with a home game against No. 14 Florida, which has lost just one game — a heart breaker against the early-season Cardiac Kid Tennessee Vols.

It’s not going to be easy, for sure. Florida’s defense has absolutely dominated this season, allowing just 12 points per game on average. On offense, Luke Del Rio needs to be sharper in this one than he was in his return to action against Missouri. He threw three interceptions in that game in a winning cause.

Georgia needs to dominate the trenches to win this game. The Bulldogs must dictate the pace of play by methodically moving the chains with their rushing attack. Freshman quarterback Jacob Eason is plenty talented, but he’s also still very green — just the type of fodder Florida’s defense seeks to consume.

An upset is unlikely, but we at least hope the Bulldogs can keep it close.

8. West Virginia continues Big 12 gauntlet

college football Week 9, West Virginia Mountaineers

One of the most incredible stories this year has been the rise of No. 10 West Virginia.

The Mountaineers sport a defense that has shut down Texas Tech and TCU to the tune of 27 combined points the past two weekends. Those two offensive juggernauts had averaged well over points per game before running into the brick wall that was West Virginia’s defense.

There’s no time for complacency, however. Another high-scoring Big 12 team is on the menu this weekend, as Oklahoma State is playing host to West Virginia Saturday at noon. Boone Pickens Stadium will be rocking. But will the Mountaineers be able to silence the crowd with another shut-down performance by its defense?

If the answer is yes, then the already growing chorus of people counting West Virginia as a legit College Football Playoff contender will only get louder. Just don’t expect head coach Dana Holgorsen to answer any questions about it.

“I can assure you I’m not responding to a College Football Playoff question,” he told reporters on Tuesday (h/t DK Pittsburgh Sports).

If Holgorsen won’t talk about it, we will.

The Mountaineers are absolutely one of the top teams in the nation. If they continue dominating the high-powered offenses of the Big 12, it seems safe to say they will at least have a shot against the big guns in the Big Ten and SEC.

With Oklahoma and Baylor still up ahead, the road won’t be easy. Thankfully it’s clear Holgorsen has his eyes set on the moment, rather than the future.

9. Can Sparty upset Harbaugh’s juggernaut?

Mark Dantonio, Michigan State Spartans

Based on both teams’ performance this year, Michigan State is about to be humiliated at home when No. 2 Michigan comes to town Saturday.

The Spartans have been one of the biggest disappointments around the nation this year, losing five straight now after winning their first two games in 2016. And some of these losses are just inexplicable. Losing to Maryland, Northwestern and BYU by a combined 42 points is a level of misery Michigan State fans haven’t seen the John Smith era.

On the other side of the coin, Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines are about as hot as you can get. This team is beating the tar out of bad teams and beating up on good ones. Michigan has won by an average score of 49-10 this year. This team beat Rutgers so bad it had fans hugging after the Scarlet Knights finally got their first first down of the game in the fourth quarter (watch here).

There’s no chance Michigan State wins this one, right?

Well, based on what we saw last weekend in Happy Valley, anything is possible. These two programs have a long history of battling one another, and the Spartans did win last year at The Big House.

But realistically, there’s no chance of an upset Saturday afternoon at Spartan Stadium.

10. Lamar Jackson’s Heisman campaign should get a boost against Virginia

After a mediocre showing a couple weeks ago against Duke, Lamar Jackson bounced back nicely with a huge game against NC State in Week 8. He had four touchdowns and a 44-0 lead over the Wolfpack by halftime.

Through seven games, Jackson now has totaled 3,069 yards and 34 touchdowns (18 throwing, 16 rushing).

He’s also had some signature Heisman moments, such as his leap over a defender against Syracuse, his unbelievable dash to escape pressure against Duke and a 74-yard scamper against NC State in which he literally hit the Heisman pose to stiff-arm a would-be tackler.

This is a guy who Michael Vick praised as “five times better” than himself during his legendary career at Virginia Tech.

Jackson’s Heisman campaign shouldn’t run into any road blocks this weekend when No. 5 Louisville takes on Virginia in Charlottesville. The Cavaliers feature a defense that surrenders more yards than their offense produces and comes into the game with a 2-5 record.

Oddsmakers don’t see this one as being in any way a close matchup, and neither do we. Jackson will likely not play the full 60 minutes as he and the Cardinals cruise to victory.