B/R Experts Answer Biggest College Football Questions for Week 8
Clemson and Alabama have asserted their usual degree of dominance on this 2020 college football season, but who else is good this year?
Ohio State will probably be good and should comfortably take care of Nebraska this weekend, but you never know. Just in the past month, we've seen Oklahoma, LSU, Auburn, Miami, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina suffer losses while ranked No. 7 or better in the AP poll.
Which highly ranked team bites the dust this weekend? (Could it be the Buckeyes?)
Will Cincinnati or SMU take the driver's seat for a spot in a New Year's Six Bowl?
Does Dillon Gabriel's Tua Tagovailoa impersonation continue for another week?
And what will everyone buzz about after the first weekend of Big Ten football?
Bleacher Report's college football experts—David Kenyon, Adam Kramer, Kerry Miller, Joel Reuter and Brad Shepard—have predictions for each of those questions and more in advance of what should be another stellar weekend of collegiate pigskin.
No. 18 Michigan at No. 21 Minnesota: Who You Got?
This is an outstanding showdown to start the Big Ten schedule, and wow, have I missed the B1G!
It's always hard to bet against Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck, considering he has built two programs from scratch. He still has quarterback Tanner Morgan and elite pass-catcher Rashod Bateman. But the Golden Gophers will miss offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who left for Penn State.
Michigan, on the other hand, will surprise some folks this year—in a good way, for a change.
Jim Harbaugh is overrated, but he made the correct quarterback decision in naming Joe Milton the starter—even though it meant the end of Dylan McCaffrey's time in Ann Arbor. When you factor in all the talent the Wolverines have in the offensive backfield, they can make up for the dearth of proven perimeter weapons.
The Wolverines should limit Bateman's game-breaking ability by pressuring Morgan, and that front seven will be fantastic from the start. Defense will be the name of the game, and Milton will make enough plays for the Wolverines to win 23-20.
During his five seasons as Michigan's head coach, Harbaugh has a 1-7 road record against ranked opponents. The lone victory was at No. 24 Michigan State two years ago when the Spartans had no offense whatsoever and finished with six losses. In other words, competent ranked teams have protected home field against the Wolverines.
Expect Minnesota to be competent. The Golden Gophers bring back a solid quarterback in Morgan, an excellent wide receiver in Bateman and all five of last year's primary starters along the offensive line. They averaged 34.1 points per game last season, and there's no good reason to expect that number to decrease.
Minnesota's defense is much more of a question mark following the departure of five of its six leading tacklers, but will Michigan capitalize while replacing its starting quarterback and four of its top six receivers from last season? Maybe Milton is the answer at QB, or maybe his first career start goes as poorly as D'Wan Mathis' did for Georgia last month. (If we can even trust that Milton is the starter for this game. You never know with Harbaugh, who hides depth charts from the public like one would the formula for Coca-Cola.)
It's tough to know what to expect, as both teams lost a bunch of key starters. I don't even know if home-field advantage exists in 2020, but I'm going with Minnesota because of the game's location. Were it being played at the Big House, I'd like Michigan by a touchdown. In Minnesota, however, I'm leaning Gophers by a field goal. Minnesota 27, Michigan 24.
Will No. 9 Cincinnati or No. 16 SMU Win the Undefeated AAC Showdown?
The better question is: Will a three-week layoff be problematic for 3-0 Cincinnati?
When the Bearcats last played (Oct. 3), SMU hosted Memphis—which hadn't taken the field in roughly a month—and the Mustangs quickly built a 24-3 advantage. Yes, SMU (5-0) needed a late field goal to avoid overtime and win, but the Bearcats don't have as prolific an offense as Memphis. If they trail early, it'll be difficult to recover.
So, it's an awfully good thing Cincinnati has an incredible pass defense. Led by star corner Ahmad Gardner, the Bearcats have allowed a meager 5.1 yards per attempt and zero touchdowns while snagging seven interceptions. As long as it's a low-scoring game, Cincinnati has the edge.
When SMU quarterback Shane Buechele drops back to pass against this secondary, it will be a clash between an unstoppable force and an immovable object. SMU ranks in the top five in both yards per pass attempt (10.0) and passing yards per game (359.2). Only mighty Alabama is better than the Mustangs in both categories. Meanwhile, Cincinnati's defense has yet to allow a passing touchdown and is leading the nation in defensive passer efficiency rating.
For both sides, that apparent dominance is bolstered by the level of competition faced. Cincinnati played Austin Peay, Army and South Florida, none of which can pass worth a darn. SMU's five opponents each had a terrible secondary. But both units were solid last year, so it's not exactly surprising that they've been this good.
As we most recently saw in the Georgia-Alabama game, the great offense usually gets the better of the great defense. So I trust SMU will get a couple of passing touchdowns.
What I don't trust, though, is the Mustangs defense, which is allowing 30.0 points per game against FBS opponents. They survived close calls against Memphis and Tulane earlier this month, but Cincinnati will get at least one or two more stops than those defenses could. That adds up to a key road win for the Bearcats. Cincinnati 30, SMU 27.
Who WIll Be the Highest-Ranked Team to Lose in Week 8?
Something has to give when No. 9 Cincinnati travels to No. 16 SMU in a battle for AAC supremacy, and after the way No. 14 North Carolina played last week, it's far from a given the Tar Heels will come out on top against No. 23 NC State, even at home.
However, we're going to focus on the Big 12.
Oklahoma and Texas both suffered a pair of early losses, turning the conference upside down and leaving Oklahoma State as its lone undefeated team. The Cowboys haven't played since they blew out Kansas on Oct. 3, and their two wins before that weren't exactly effortless.
Meanwhile, Iowa State has won three in a row and looked sharp last time out in a 31-15 victory over Texas Tech. At least on that day, quarterback Brock Purdy looked very much like the NFL talent he has been hyped to be, completing 32 of 43 passes for 302 yards and two touchdowns while adding another 42 yards on the ground.
The Cyclones lost by seven to the Cowboys at home last year, but they have the talent to return the favor.
In each of the past four weeks, at least one team ranked in the AP Top Seven has suffered a loss. In three of those four weeks, multiple Top Seven teams went down. It has been a "no one is safe" type of season.
If that trend is to continue this week, the two likeliest suspects are No. 3 Notre Dame (at Pittsburgh) and No. 6 Oklahoma State (vs. No. 17 Iowa State).
Notre Dame's passing game has been lacking, to say the least, and Pittsburgh has the country's stingiest rush defense. This game could be a near carbon copy of Notre Dame's 12-7 win over Louisville last weekend, except maybe the Fighting Irish will commit a fatal turnover, resulting in the No. 3 team in the AP poll's biting the dust for the third time in five weeks.
Oklahoma State should win at home against the Cyclones, but the Cowboys haven't played since Oct. 3, and their starting quarterback, Spencer Sanders, has only attempted two passes this season because of a lower body injury. Some degree of early rust is a strong possibility, and Iowa State has enough playmakers on offense and pass-rushers on defense to build and maintain a lead.
My official answer, though, is that No. 16 SMU is the highest-ranked team to lose (vs. No. 9 Cincinnati). But let's just say I won't be surprised if I'm wrong because of either Notre Dame or Oklahoma State.
Which Game Between Unranked Teams Will Be the Most Entertaining?
I'm a big fan of stylistic clashes. Several of those games are featured this week between unranked teams such as Temple vs. Memphis, Oklahoma vs. TCU, Auburn vs. Ole Miss and Baylor vs. Texas. But, since it's a Big Ten-tinged week, let's go with Iowa traveling to West Lafayette, Indiana, to take on Purdue.
This might finally be the year when Jeff Brohm's* hyped-up coaching prowess manifests in the win column for Purdue. The Boilermakers have elite playmaker Rondale Moore back, and they get to team him with super sophomore David Bell at receiver. With Jack Plummer throwing them the ball behind a great offensive line, there are plenty of reasons for excitement.
Though they have a lot of new players, everybody knows what Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes will do: try to run it down your throat and win with hard-nosed defense. Though we don't know much about the new talent at Iowa, it'll be the usual game plan. Purdue will grind out a 28-24 win.
*Brohm is out after testing positive for COVID-19, so his brother, Brian, will take over for the game.
My hope is that it will be Air Force at San Jose State, because we are long overdue for our first "I've been watching football nonstop for 14 hours, but I hope this game never ends" type of late-night action of the 2020 season. Everyone is jazzed up about the Big Ten's return this weekend, but those of us on the East Coast fighting sleep during a riveting Mountain West game is what would make this feel like the first normal weekend of the fall.
The obvious choice, though, is Auburn at Ole Miss.
I'm intrigued to find out how Lane Kiffin plans to mix things up one week after a seven-turnover loss to Arkansas. Are we finally going to get a somewhat healthy dose of John Rhys Plumlee, who has been MIA since the Rebels' first drive of the season against Florida? Or will they just let Matt Corral keep firing away against an Auburn defense that has only forced one turnover in its last three games?
And what about when Auburn has the ball? Will it be the Tank Bigsby show against one of the worst run defenses in the country? Or will the Tigers focus on building up Bo Nix's confidence against one of the worst pass defenses in the country? (Might as well start calling it Ole Swiss because of the holes it leaves all over the field.)
Bonus consideration: The rest of the early-afternoon slate is liable to be riddled with blowouts, which would make this game even more entertaining by comparison.
Does Coastal Carolina Win Its 1st Game as a Ranked Team?
After a 5-7 season last year, and in just their fourth campaign at the FBS level, the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers are making noise on a national level thanks to a 4-0 start.
A 30-27 victory over Louisiana-Lafayette last week was just enough to vault them into the AP Top 25, and another tough test awaits in Georgia Southern, which improved to 3-1 last week with a 41-0 shutout of UMass.
Both of these teams love to run the ball. The Eagles rank fourth in the nation at 281.3 rushing yards per game, and the Chanticleers check in at No. 20 with 201.8 yards per game on the ground. At the same time, both defenses are allowing more than 4.5 yards per carry, so there should be ample running room.
Home-field advantage could be the difference. Georgia Southern won a 30-27 triple-overtime battle at home last year, but it will be advantage: Coastal Carolina with the game shifting to Brooks Stadium. An identical 30-27 score seems about right.
The Chanticleers will win, but it won't come easily.
Georgia Southern's three victories have come against teams (Campbell, Louisiana-Monroe and Massachusetts) that have a combined record of 0-10, but don't let that fool you. That triple-option offense doesn't care if you're 0-5 or 7-0, as was the case when the Eagles upset Appalachian State last Halloween. Georgia Southern has rushed for at least 300 yards in each of its last two games. It also rushed for 299 yards against Coastal Carolina last year and eclipsed 400 yards against the Chanticleers in 2018.
This year, though, Coastal has an offense. Grayson McCall has been a breath of fresh air at quarterback after three straight years of a revolving door at that position. And while the Chanticleers haven't had an individually dominant rushing threat, they're averaging better than 200 yards on the ground. In addition to his 197.0 passer efficiency rating—which trails only Alabama's Mac Jones and BYU's Zach Wilson—McCall has been a significant contributor in that running game with 184 yards and three touchdowns.
It will probably come down to the wire, but I like Coastal Carolina to have another turnover-free game in a 27-23 victory.
Which Week 8 Game Produces the Most Total Points?
Virginia Tech at Wake Forest.
The absolute best part of this answer is the memory it sparks in a football-overloaded brain. Six years ago, former Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer threw up his arms in celebration as Wake Forest missed a field goal as time expired. Beamer's team had another chance to win—a joyous moment! The score as the game headed to overtime? Yes, 0-0. What a time.
Virginia Tech's defensive performance last week is a cause for hesitation; the Hokies only allowed 14 points to Boston College. Nevertheless, Tech surrendered 87 points in its two previous road games, and it can atone for those issues with a productive offense. The Hokies have gained 460-plus yards and scored at least 38 points in all four games. Wake Forest, meanwhile, has reached the 40-point mark in three games since falling to Clemson in early September, and the defense has ceded 35 points per game to ACC competition.
I'll refrain from picking Tulane at UCF, since I'll be writing about that one momentarily. But an equally strong candidate is Virginia Tech at Wake Forest.
Virginia Tech's rushing attack is a freight train, averaging 312.0 yards per game and just under 7.0 yards per carry. And Wake Forest's front seven is unlikely to do much about that, having allowed nine rushing touchdowns in three ACC games.
It's a two-way street, though. The Demon Deacons have scored at least 40 points in three straight games, while the Hokies defense has allowed 473.8 yards per contest.
Aside from Clemson, these are the two highest-scoring teams in the ACC. They also both rank in the bottom third of the league in total yards allowed per game. I could see this being a 52-41 type of back-and-forth affair (that Virginia Tech wins).
Over/Under 399.5 Passing Yards for Dillon Gabriel vs. Tulane?
The answer, at least in three of the past four games, would've been "over." UCF's Gabriel has been putting up numbers suitable for NCAA Football video games. Side note: Bring back this glorious football game, NCAA.
Anyway, he has been awesome. Gabriel is averaging 439 yards passing per game. It's more yards than any FBS quarterback. Alabama's Mac Jones, second on this list, is averaging almost 60 fewer yards heading into Week 8. The gap is that wide, and it is staggering.
Speaking of gaps that are wide and staggering, Tulane's passing defense is a problem. The Green Wave have the No. 65 aerial defense of the 77 teams playing. And although I like Tulane and think it could keep this game reasonably close, Gabriel will still go hog-wild.
Both things could happen. Last week, he threw for 601 yards, ran for 49 more...and his team lost by one to Memphis. He won't have that kind of game, but it could be another doozy.
I'll take the over, because, frankly, he's throwing for 400 yards in his sleep. Prediction: 33-of-47, 421 yards passing, four touchdowns.
I saw the news earlier this week that McKenzie Milton has looked good running the scout team offense and has been medically cleared to play for the first time in nearly two full years following a brutal leg injury. And my first thought was, "Man, that's awesome, but where is he going to transfer to get playing time?"
That's how damn good Gabriel has been. Milton finished in the top 10 in the Heisman Trophy vote in both 2017 and 2018, and he has no realistic hope of even temporarily taking this job from Gabriel.
The left-handed sophomore is leading the nation in passing yards, thanks to three games with at least 400 yards and four or more touchdowns. Even though UCF already has two losses, this man deserves Heisman hype. I mean, it's not his fault UCF's defense couldn't stop Memphis, or that its kicker shanked a would-be game-winning 40-yard field goal.
To answer the question, though, I'm definitely taking the over. Remove the game against Navy (which runs the ball more than five times as often as it passes it), and Tulane is allowing 344.5 passing yards per game. The Green Wave just allowed 439 passing yards to SMU, which was playing its first game without star receiver Reggie Roberson Jr. (season-ending knee injury).
The main way I could imagine Gabriel falling short of 400 yards is if the Knights seize a huge early lead and put it in cruise control. But their defense has been so bad that I don't see that happening.
The Biggest Headline from Big Ten Opening Weekend Will Be...?
A Penn State loss. That's right. I am wasting little time getting weird. It's the start of the B1G calendar, and I brought the fireworks.
If Michigan loses to Minnesota, the internet will celebrate Jim Harbaugh's Wolverines demise for the thousandth time. But Indiana's upsetting Penn State will be more significant.
Last year, the Hoosiers almost upended the Nittany Lions on the road. At home, every so often, they work up some Bloomington magic and make quality teams quite uncomfortable.
This is the perfect spot to make that happen. Penn State will begin the season without many of the key defensive players that made the engine go a year ago, including linebacker Micah Parsons, who opted out. But I'm more intrigued by what Indiana will accomplish.
Quarterback Michael Penix Jr. is a fascinating talent. If that talent is realized, this offense will be one of the Big Ten's best. The point spread of roughly a touchdown speaks volumes; Vegas is anticipating a close game, and so am I.
Indiana kicks off the B1G season with a thrilling 28-24 win. Regardless of what happens to Michigan, this would be a mighty blow to a College Football Playoff hopeful.
Aside from the generic "Football Finally Returns to the Rust Belt" type of stuff, my guess at a game-specific headline will be: "Noah Cain Proves He Can Lead Penn State's Rushing Attack."
With Penn State announcing this week that projected starting running back Journey Brown might not play in 2020 because of an undisclosed medical condition discovered this offseason, it looks like Cain will be the starter.
For most teams, a last-minute change at running back would be a nightmare. But Penn State should be in good shape with Cain and Devyn Ford.
When the Nittany Lions were playing RB-whack-a-mole last year, Cain (as a true freshman) had back-to-back 100-yard rushing performances against Purdue and Iowa in October. He also ran for 92 yards and two touchdowns in the Cotton Bowl win over Memphis. He didn't play in last year's game against Indiana, but he should be the star of a relatively high-scoring contest this year.
Backup headline prediction: "Purdue's Prescription for Victory Is Moore (Cow) Bell." (Rondale Moore and David Bell are the Boilermakers' star receivers.)
Odds via DraftKings.