B/R Experts Answer Biggest College Football Questions for Week 9
On paper, Week 9 of the 2020 college football season looks relatively uneventful. There's only one game between ranked teams (No. 3 Ohio State at No. 18 Penn State), and in 13 of the 18 ranked vs. unranked matchups, the ranked team is favored by double digits—by nearly five touchdowns in several cases.
But at least one team ranked in the AP Top Eight has suffered a loss in each of the past five weeks, because college football doesn't know how to do "uneventful."
Will a single AP Top 10 team lose this weekend, though?
Could Oklahoma and Texas Tech combine for more than 800 passing yards in a Big 12 bonanza?
Can Kentucky's moribund offense amass even 125 yards this weekend against Georgia's defense?
And will Rutgers and/or Northwestern still be undefeated in a week?
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 fun-filled weekend of collegiate pigskin.
No. 3 Ohio State at No. 18 Penn State: Who You Got?
I have Ohio State winning, and I understand this pick isn't all that interesting. But consider the variables, not many of which are working in Penn State's favor.
For starters, Penn State just lost a football game against Indiana. This variable is important. It wasn't a bad loss—perhaps controversial, but not bad—although the Nittany Lions offense was a bit stagnant against a decent team.
Where I have greater concerns are the injuries on offense. Running backs Journey Brown and Noah Cain are now out for the season, which can't be overstated. These aren't just Penn State's top two backs; they are two of the best backs in the conference.
Where I have the most concern, though, is Penn State's opposition. Justin Fields has a growing list of weapons to target, and that was evident in Ohio State's first game. While the Buckeyes could take a step back on defense from last season, this offense is going to be overwhelming.
Penn State has the players to keep this game close, although not having a true home-field advantage because of COVID-19 is another one of those major variables.
I'll say Ohio State 37, Penn State 24.
I'm picking the Buckeyes. But I expect Penn State to make this one interesting by keying on Ohio State's Achilles' heel: containing mobile quarterbacks.
In last year's Fiesta Bowl, Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence rushed for 107 yards against Ohio State. In last week's game against Nebraska, Cornhuskers QBs Adrian Martinez and Luke McCaffrey combined for 165 yards on 22 rushing attempts. Martinez also had 81 rushing yards in last year's game. Even Wisconsin's Jack Coan gave Ohio State some problems in the 2019 Big Ten championship, rushing for 27 yards and two touchdowns after a combined total of negative-13 rushing yards in his first 12 games of the season.
Enter: Sean Clifford.
Penn State's quarterback had an awful night against Ohio State in last year's matchup, but in the season opener against Indiana, he more than doubled his previous career high in rushing yards with 119 of them. Any time the Buckeyes forget about his legs on a passing play, Clifford is liable to make them pay for it.
Problem is, Justin Fields is much more lethal than Clifford, and he is surrounded by better backs and receivers. It might be close for a while, but all that talent on Ohio State's roster will eventually get the job done. Ohio State 38, Penn State 27.
Will Texas End No. 6 Oklahoma State's Quest for Perfection?
I'm going to be honest with you; I don't feel great about picking Texas. I'm going to pick Texas, but it's not a selection I have a great deal of confidence in, given everything we've seen thus far.
Oklahoma State is only a slight favorite at home as a Top 10 team. The Pokes offense hasn't exactly been electric, and that's where Texas could have an advantage. If A) the Longhorns offense plays well and avoids turnovers and B) the defense finds a way to keep Oklahoma State's offense, led by running back Chuba Hubbard, off the field as much as possible, an upset is imminent.
That's a big if. There's no getting around that. Texas also has to improve its tackling, which is what most makes me nervous about making this pick.
That said, Texas has what it takes to terminate Oklahoma State's perfect season. (Even if I'm limping into the pick.)
Furthermore, a Texas win would put a stick of dynamite in the Big 12's College Football Playoff hopes.
You think the Longhorns care about that, though? Me neither.
I say no upset, but this is where we find out whether Oklahoma State has a good enough defense to make a playoff push.
Opponents are averaging 12.0 points and barely 300 yards per game against the Cowboys. However, those opponents were Tulsa, West Virginia, Kansas and Iowa State. Not really shutting down the Greatest Show on Turf.
At 45.0 points per game, Texas will be, by far, the most potent offense Oklahoma State has faced to date.
But the Cowboys have quite a bit of offense of their own, and we already know Texas' defense isn't good. The Longhorns did hold Baylor to 16 points last week, but the Bears have even less offense than most of the teams Oklahoma State has played. Stifling that rushing attack in no way means Texas is ready to contain Chuba Hubbard and LD Brown. Moreover, Tylan Wallace's career-best performance (10 receptions for 222 yards and two touchdowns) came against the Longhorns secondary two years ago.
It's probably going to be a 35-31 type of game, but I like Oklahoma State to keep the playoff dream alive into November.
Does Kentucky Crack 125 Yards of Total Offense Against No. 5 Georgia?
The Wildcats are 2-3 and desperately need some sort of offensive spark. All the goodwill they built up by dismantling Tennessee two weeks ago—forcing the Vols into turnover after turnover—was ruined in an embarrassing loss to Missouri that saw starting quarterback Terry Wilson pulled in favor of Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood.
Now, UK head coach Mark Stoops has a decision to make at signal-caller, though it probably won't matter against a strong Georgia defense.
Auburn and Ole Miss are the only teams against which UK has reached the 300-yard mark. The Cats are 13th in the conference in total offense, ahead of only Vanderbilt.
Still, you've got to think they'll shake it up and find a way to get past that paltry 125-yard mark.
The Bulldogs are dominant on defense, and while the success of the Wildcats offense is predicated on the run, they've got to mix it up through the air. Maybe Gatewood is the answer, though nobody is spilling the beans on whether or not he will get his shot.
I'm going with over 125, but this game is going to be ugly, and that 300-yard barrier will not even be a thought. UK will hover around 200 yards and get blown off the field.
While a 125-yard threshold feels laughably low, it does happen on occasion. It hasn't been done yet this year, but there were 14 instances last season where an FBS team finished a game with 125 yards of total offense or fewer. Heck, in six of those games, that team didn't even reach triple digits.
Georgia's defense could do that to Kentucky's offense.
The Wildcats have been awful with the ball lately. They had 157 total yards against Mississippi State on Oct. 10 and 145 total yards this past Saturday against Missouri. They have no passing attack, and Georgia is allowing just 65.5 rushing yards per game.
My guess is that Kentucky enters the fourth quarter with around 90 yards of total offense before perhaps ending up at 170 thanks to a couple of garbage-time possessions against the prevent defense. There will be no denying Georgia won the game with defense, though.
Wider Scoring Margin: Clemson vs. Boston College or Alabama vs. Miss State?
Note: For both of these games, the home team has been favored by 30.5-32.5 points throughout the week.
Mississippi State quarterback K.J. Costello has thrown eight interceptions the last three games and was benched last week against Texas A&M. The Bulldogs have zero running game to fall back on, averaging a paltry 28.5 rushing yards per game, and the Crimson Tide defense is going to eat them alive.
That said, I'm still taking the runaway freight train that is the Clemson Tigers.
Boston College is off to a solid 4-2 start, including a 48-27 blowout victory over Georgia Tech last week, but the Eagles are going to be overmatched Saturday.
They allowed 350 rushing yards and 8.5 yards per carry in a 40-14 loss to Virginia Tech two weeks ago. With all due respect to Hokies rushing options Hendon Hooker (18 carries, 164 yards, 3 TDs) and Khalil Herbert (18 carries, 143 yards), who both had stellar performances, Clemson star Travis Etienne is on another level.
Even with Trevor Lawrence (COVID-19) out for this game, it's not like BC can just stack the box to stop the run, because D.J. Uiagalelei is probably the most talented backup QB in the country.
Both teams will win by 30-plus, but Clemson will have the wider margin of victory.
Mississippi State's offense has been a train wreck in the three games since upsetting LSU to open the season, but the Bulldogs aren't terrible on defense.
Granted, Alabama is a whole heck of a lot better on offense than Arkansas, Kentucky and Texas A&M, but MSU held each of those teams to 325 total yards or fewer. Plus, the Bulldogs have done relatively well with Alabama's high-octane offense lately, holding the Crimson Tide below 40 points in each of their last three meetings.
Alabama will win comfortably, but I suspect this will be more of a "Let's figure out who we can count on without Jaylen Waddle" type of game than the usual "Let's ride our unstoppable horses to another blowout victory." A final score of 38-7 feels about right.
On Thursday morning, I felt confident that Clemson would win by around 40 points. After all, the Tigers beat Boston College by 52 last year, and this seemed destined to be one of those "renewed sense of focus" games in which they bounce back from last week's closer-than-expected game against Syracuse by blowing out BC.
After the news of Trevor Lawrence's positive COVID-19 test came out Thursday night, though, that confidence waned significantly.
I'm still picking Clemson to win by more than 31 points, because D.J. Uiagalelei is an immensely talented backup and I don't think Boston College has the offense to score multiple touchdowns against this defense. But I fully expect the answer to this question to be decided by a completely meaningless touchdown in the final 90 seconds of one (or both) of these games.
What Will Be the Highest-Ranked Team to Lose in Week 9?
No. 6 Oklahoma State (vs. Texas) and No. 7 Cincinnati (vs. Memphis) have difficult games this week, but they should both survive. The Longhorns have yet to prove they can play any defense, and the Bearcats showed last week against SMU they can play against an offensive-minded team, though that gets ramped up against the high-powered Tigers.
I'm going to go with No. 16 Kansas State, which goes to Morgantown to play a West Virginia team that was playing well prior to last week's upset loss at Texas Tech. The improvements the Mountaineers have shown in Neal Brown's second year are obvious, and the Wildcats are hardly a juggernaut.
Will Howard is making progress for K-State at quarterback with Skylar Thompson out for the year, but Jarret Doege and company will finish better this week at home and get a big win to keep WVU moving in the right direction.
(I can't quite pull the trigger on a Memphis upset, and I may regret it.)
Next weekend is going to be wild with five games between teams currently in the AP Top 25, but I expect this to be a "calm before the storm" slate.
Texas at No. 6 Oklahoma State is the only game where I could definitely envision a Top 15 team bites the dust. No. 7 Cincinnati vs. Memphis is a possibility, but the Bearcats proved against SMU that they are the kings of the AAC this year. They should be able to win, and I've already predicted Oklahoma State will prevail against Texas.
My pick here is West Virginia to knock off No. 16 Kansas State.
The Wildcats are 4-1, but they're nothing special. Last week's win over Kansas was the first time they outgained an opponent. Meanwhile, West Virginia has outgained all five of its opponents thanks to a respectable defense and an offense that is light-years better than last season's disaster. The Mountaineers are 3-0 in Morgantown this year, and they'll push that record to 4-0 this weekend.
Which Battle Between Unranked Teams Will Be Most Entertaining?
From the "I like offense" perspective, this one is obvious: UCF at Houston.
UCF ranks fifth nationally in scoring at 45.2 points per game, and Houston is in a respectable 22nd place at 37.3 PPG. On defense, UCF is giving up 33.4 per game while Houston has surrendered 31.7. Between those struggles defensively and the scorching pace both offenses use, there will be plenty of possessions to go around.
This feels like a first-to-50 kind of race, and UCF is the deserving favorite because of Dillon Gabriel. The sophomore quarterback has an absurd 2,178 yards in five games, throwing 19 touchdowns against just two interceptions. The Heisman candidate will lead UCF to a victory in the neighborhood of 49-42.
While UCF at Houston will be a highly enjoyable track meet, the only rational choice here is LSU at Auburn—and that's because I still have no idea if either of these teams is good.
Sure, either one would have the talent to plow through a Group of Five conference with the inevitability of an undefeated freight train. But is either one good enough to offer up token resistance against Alabama next month? Will either finish above .500?
LSU can pass well—apparently regardless of whether Myles Brennan or TJ Finley is at quarterback—but the Tigers rushing attack is worse than it has been in more than a decade. Their defense is nothing short of a travesty, allowing over 470 yards per game.
Auburn's defense isn't quite that bad, but it's a far cry from what it had been for the past four years. The run game looks much improved in recent weeks, but how much of that is a product of facing the porous front sevens of Arkansas, South Carolina and Ole Miss? Bo Nix arguably isn't even a top-10 starting quarterback in the SEC, so the Tigers had better hope that rushing improvement is for real.
Someone is going to win this game to enter November on a two-game winning streak. Maybe that momentum carries over into future games against Alabama and Texas A&M.
Over/Under 850 Passing Yards Between Oklahoma and Texas Tech?
Though it's the extremely un-fun answer, under.
Spencer Rattler will likely surpass 300 yards, but Oklahoma is starting to lean a little heavier on the running game. T.J. Pledge has handled 22 carries in consecutive weeks, and Seth McGowan and Marcus Major took turns logging 10-plus rushing attempts in those games. Although Texas Tech's run defense is competent, it's not a shutdown unit.
That's the long version of saying Texas Tech would need to account for something like 450-500 yards, which is an incredibly high range. Besides, the Red Raiders are averaging an unspectacular (and unusual for them) 6.6 yards per pass attempt this season. Oklahoma has a shaky secondary, for sure, but it's not that atrocious.
Even though Texas Tech's season opener against Houston Baptist featured more than 1,000 combined passing yards, and even though Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield combined for 1,279 yards in this game four years ago, I'm going with the under.
Spencer Rattler will more than do his part against the Red Raiders secondary. He doesn't have a 400-yard game in his career, but he's liable to flirt with 500 in this one. Texas Tech has already allowed five passing plays of at least 60 yards this season, which is the most in the nation. Rattler is tied for first place in passing plays of 50 or more yards with six of them. I expect that combination of factors to result in at least three OU bombs.
Even if he reaches 500, though, that still leaves 350 for Henry Colombi, and I don't see that happening. Texas Tech's passing total has decreased with each game this season, bottoming out at 169 yards against West Virginia.
I have no faith in Oklahoma's secondary, which has allowed at least 275 yards in four consecutive games. But I would be surprised if they even eclipse 750 combined yards.
Who Improves to 2-0: Rutgers, Northwestern, Neither or Both?
Predicting how any Big Ten game will play out feels like a fool's errand after last week, but I'm taking Rutgers and Northwestern to both win again Saturday, vs. Indiana and Iowa, respectively.
Indiana pulled off the big upset of Penn State in its opener, but the Hoosiers were outgained 488-211 while turning it over twice. It was a huge win, but it was far from a statement victory. Meanwhile, Michigan State is not a juggernaut these days, but there's no ignoring the seven turnovers Rutgers forced while holding the Spartans to 50 rushing yards on 39 carries.
In the other game, it's hard to judge Northwestern based on a victory over a terrible Maryland squad, but it was a convincing 43-3 win in which the Wildcats piled up 325 rushing yards while limiting the Terrapins to 207 total yards. The confidence and momentum built in that game can't be overlooked, while Iowa is trending in the opposite direction after blowing a fourth-quarter lead against Purdue.
The Hawkeyes were picked by most to finish third in the West Division behind Wisconsin and Minnesota. They might be the better team on paper. But momentum will be the difference-maker in a close game that Northwestern wins.
There's nothing better than overreacting to the first weekend of a football season. And for all the horrible, rotten, no-good things that have come out of this calendar year, at least 2020 has given us a whole bunch of first weekends to try to figure out.
Rutgers is better than we were expecting after its past half-decade of futility, but I'm not ready to believe the Scarlet Knights are good enough to beat an AP Top 25 team for the first time since 2009—even though I'm far from convinced Indiana is one of the 25 best teams in the country. In the first 58 minutes against a Penn State defense that lost a bunch of veteran leaders from last season, the Hoosiers had 133 yards of total offense. That upset made no sense, even as it was transpiring.
But the main reason Rutgers beat Michigan State was that the defense recovered five fumbles, which isn't a repeatable game plan. Indiana will move the ball better than it did against Penn State and win the game, but it should be close for a while.
Northwestern will improve to 2-0 at Iowa, though.
Iowa was undisciplined in its loss to Purdue, committing 100 yards' worth of penalties and failing to adjust to Purdue's game plan of "Throw it to David Bell as often as possible." Meanwhile, Northwestern obliterated Maryland by 40 points. Late last season, the Wildcats figured out how to run the ball, averaging 273 rushing yards over their final four games. They kept that going with 325 yards on the ground against the Terrapins. And this year, they at least have a quarterback (Indiana transfer Peyton Ramsey) who can efficiently run an offense.
Not only will Northwestern win this game, but it will also beat Nebraska next week and may well defeat Purdue on Nov. 14. Depending on what happens in the Wisconsin at Michigan game on the 14th, Northwestern might be alone in first place in the Big Ten West heading into the second half of the league's season. Wouldn't that be fun?