by Ian Boyd
For Penn State and Notre Dame, Week 8 was partly just a prelude to the major challenges they will face in Week 9. The Nittany Lions had a prime-time home game against battered Michigan and battered them more, dealing the Wolverines a 42-13 defeat fueled by 161 total yards and three touchdowns from star running back Saquon Barkley. Now they have to go into Columbus and take on Ohio State with the Big 10 East division possibly hanging in the balance.
Notre Dame similarly delivered a major beatdown to USC, 49-14, while running wild on the Trojans defense. Now they have a big showdown with 6-1 North Carolina State. The Wolfpack are contending to stay on top of the ACC Atlantic division with Clemson, and while this game won't affect those standings, it could impact their Playoff standing should they to manage to win the conference. Otherwise, they'd be a two-loss team that emerged from the ACC in a down year.
Elsewhere around the country, Tom Herman's Texas Longhorns once again beat the spread but lost the game (6-1 against the spread this year); LSU beat down Ole Miss; Central Florida continued to roll with a 10-point win over Navy; and Tennessee's horrible season continued predictably with a blowout loss against Alabama.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Oklahoma State (-7) at West Virginia -- 12 p.m. (ABC)
Oklahoma State nearly had their second hiccup in Big 12 play last week, going into overtime at Texas and winning the game due to a bizarre interception thrown by a possibly concussed freshman Longhorns quarterback. Much like TCU did in an earlier game against Oklahoma State, the Longhorns defense played small with a dime package and played off in coverage, daring the Cowboys to beat them down the field without the aid of their deep passing game. The Oklahoma State run game managed only 2.9 yards per carry against Texas while running the ball 51 times, and thus scored only 10 points in regulation.
The trick of it, though, was Texas utilizing a 3-2-6 dime package that included pass-rushing defensive ends around their star nose tackle. West Virginia has similar defensive coverages to what Texas used to deny deep passing lanes to Oklahoma State, utilizing three deep safeties with one playing like a Tampa-2 middle linebacker, but they do not have the same caliber of defensive linemen. The Mountaineers have struggled to hold the point of attack or rush the passer late in games without bringing big blitzes this year. They'll try to approximate what Texas did in taking away the deep shots, but this defense is not as well equipped to pressure Cowboys quarterback Mason Rudolph or to shut down the run.
On the other side of the ball, Oklahoma State is playing very good defense thanks to a veteran unit with upperclassmen up the middle at tackle, linebacker, and safety, and then some improved athleticism out wide at cornerback. They shut down the Longhorns but will have a tougher challenge against West Virginia.
The Mountaineers' offense has been close to Oklahoma State's by some metrics. Quarterback Will Grier is averaging 9.2 yards per attempt with 26 touchdowns to five interceptions. His favorite target, wide receiver David Sills, has a remarkable 15 touchdown catches on the year. Running back Justin Crawford has also been very effective, running for 639 yards at 6.1 yards per carry on the year.
Like the Cowboys, the Mountaineers spread opponents out and chuck it deep, then run zone schemes against light boxes when teams start dropping back in coverage. They have been fairly effective against some good defenses all season, so there's a good chance this will be a shootout. The fact that it will be played in the hostile confines of Morgantown, West Virginia, on a rainy evening could be another equalizer.
- This could be a high-paced shootout, particularly later in the game as the defensive lines wear down.
- Can Oklahoma State keep tabs on West Virginia wide receiver David Sills in the red zone?
- Will Oklahoma State be able to run the ball if West Virginia plays off to stop the pass?
S&P+ Outright Pick: Oklahoma State
Penn State at Ohio State (-6.5) -- 3:30 p.m. (FOX)
This is arguably the biggest game of the season so far, and the adjusted stats say these are two of the best teams in the country right now. Last year's contest was a 24-21 Penn State victory after a ridiculous decision by Ohio State to try a 60-yard field goal while leading 21-17, which resulted in a blocked kick returned for the game-winning touchdown. That win put Penn State over the top in the Big 10 East and sent them to the league title game, which they won. Nevertheless, the Playoff committee chose Ohio State over the surging Nittany Lions, where the Buckeyes suffered a 31-0 humiliation against Clemson. Suffice to say, there's going to be a lot of emotion and intensity in this one as there's a lot of recent history and plenty at stake.
The Buckeyes have been trying to reconstitute themselves around star freshman running back J.K. Dobbins and improvements in the passing game with senior quarterback J.T. Barrett. The name of the game for the Buckeyes passing attack is their "mesh" play that crosses two shallow routes while another receiver runs a curl route in the middle of the field. Barrett's effective range as a passer is on intermediate throws between the hashmarks and dumpoffs to the flat -- anything deeper than that, he's not going to be beating coverage with velocity or accuracy. Last year the Nittany Lions swallowed this up with zone blitzes that parked defenders in those areas, getting superior play at defensive end against Ohio State's option schemes.
If Penn State can lock down all of Ohio State's quick passes and option runs, or at least prevent explosive plays from those concepts, the Buckeyes can really struggle to score. We've seen that play out for several years in a row now.
Meanwhile, the Penn State offense is humming along, in no small part because running back Saquon Barkley is typically the best player on the field in every game. He has run for 757 yards this year and added another 448 receiving yards. His ability to pick up yards after the catch or after contact as a runner are challenging to stop as he basically overpowers lesser athletes.
Ohio State has better defenders than most anyone, and they'll have a plan to try and zero in on the Nittany Lions running back. The Penn State passing game may have to carry some of the load, particularly against Ohio State's pass defense, which is one of the weaker spots for this team. Much like Oklahoma, who took down Ohio State, Penn State's best receivers might be their tight end (Mike Gesicki) and running back (Barkley). If they can pick apart the Buckeyes with quick passes down the field, that could put some points on the board on the road.
This has the potential to be a close, lower-scoring battle that is far from settled when the fourth quarter arrives.
- Penn State's defensive line on option runs or dropback passes.
- Can Ohio State take away Penn State running back Saquon Barkley?
- Will Penn State force Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett to beat them throwing down the field?
- Ohio State has not beaten a top five opponent at home in a night game in Columbus this century.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Ohio State
Georgia (-14) vs Florida at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Florida -- 3:30 p.m. (CBS)
This will be a major test of Florida's ability to play every game pretty close, as Georgia looks like one of the best five teams in the nation. Like in most games the Gators play, it will break down based on how well Florida moves the chains and drains clock with their run game and the play of their defense. The Gators have been a bit spottier on defense this year compared to recent seasons, but they have a very young, athletic secondary that tries to play things safe more often than not.
The Georgia offense they are facing is primarily about inside zone runs to running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, with freshman quarterback Jake Fromm taking shots on play-action, screens, and run/pass options every now and then to keep the defense honest. They have been good at preventing opponents from loading the box and then running them over running behind star left tackle Isaiah Wynn.
Florida will probably take a different approach from the rest of Georgia's competition and play to deny the quick and easy passes while leaning on their own excellent defensive line and overall team speed to limit Georgia's run game. It could be enough to keep the Bulldogs from lighting up the scoreboard, which gives the Gators a chance if they can score themselves.
The Florida offense has been alright this season. They're at their best when explosive freshman running back Malik Davis is running off tackle behind big right tackle Jawaan Taylor (6-foot-5, 340 pounds) and the Gators tight ends. Quarterback Feleipe Franks has had a spotty freshman year, but he is dangerous throwing down the field off play-action if teams get sucked in by the run game.
Running the ball on Georgia is an immensely difficult task. Even the nation's best rushing offense per S&P+, Notre Dame, ran for only 55 yards at 1.9 yards per carry against this defensive front. The Bulldogs are careful about tending the edges and forcing teams to run the ball inside on their very stout defensive line and inside linebacker Roquan Smith. If Georgia's front chokes out the Florida run game in a similar fashion, then it will take a Herculean effort by the Gators defense for this game to be remotely close.
- Can Florida get running back Malik Davis on the edge against Georgia's 3-4 defense?
- How will Georgia freshman quarterback Jake Fromm handle Florida's team speed and pass rush?
- Florida's defensive front against Georgia's two-headed run game.
S&P+ Outright Pick: Georgia
TCU (-6.5) at Iowa State -- 3:30 p.m. (ABC/ESPN2)
These have been the two surprise teams of the Big 12. While TCU boasts a road win over Oklahoma State and a perfect record, Iowa State has improved every week and took down Oklahoma on the road. Both teams are characterized by somewhat plodding offenses that look to run the ball and convert manageable third downs paired with very good "bend don't break" defenses.
Iowa State's season has been a story of former quarterback Joel Lanning, who learned to play middle linebacker this offseason and now leads the team in tackles while also serving as a Wildcat quarterback in the Cyclones' short-yardage package. Otherwise they've recently been leaning on senior walk-on Kyle Kempt at quarterback to deliver the ball to a very strong cast of skill players, highlighted by running back David Montgomery (643 rushing yards) and receiver Allen Lazard (five touchdown catches). Their offensive line hasn't been exemplary, but they are more experienced and improved over what Iowa State has had in recent seasons.
TCU is defined by their 4-2-5 defense, which these days is so small that it's really more of a 2-3-6 with linebacker-sized defensive ends, safety-sized linebackers, and then cornerback-sized safeties. Their speed is excellent for allowing them to play off and close on opponents with speed, and their overall experience as a unit is much improved so they are better able to take advantage of having so many flexible components. The easiest way to attack them would be to come right at them but Iowa State isn't really built for that yet.
On the other side of the ball, TCU is also tiny at receiver, but has a big and experienced defensive line. The Cyclones have gotten a lot out of playing some three-down fronts and dropping everyone else. They also like to blitz their linebackers, including fast, aggressive, young players to either side of Lanning. They also have an experienced secondary and have yet to be overwhelmed by any of the Big 12 offenses on their schedule. If they can stop the run against TCU, which is the strength of the Frogs' offense, they could keep this game low-scoring enough for their own offense to find a few points against TCU's defense.
Amazingly enough, both teams are playing for a Big 12 championship at this point in the season.
- Can Iowa State get their big skill players loose against the speedy, swarming TCU defense?
- How will Iowa State's defensive line hold up against TCU's offensive line in the run game?
- Can Iowa State protect the football with inexperienced quarterback Kyle Kempt in his third start?
S&P Outright Pick: TCU
North Carolina State at Notre Dame (-7) -- 3:30 p.m. (NBC)
North Carolina State looked like an interesting preseason team in the preseason, even to the point that SEC Network analyst Cole Cubelic picked them to go to the Playoff. However, that was partly based on a defensive line that has helped the Wolfpack stop the run but hasn't allowed their defense to dominate. After an early setback against South Carolina, North Carolina State is playing more like an ACC champion, if not a Playoff team.
The Wolfpack have been driven on defense by star defensive end Bradley Chubb, who already has 14 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks this year. He was a big part of their success in limiting 2016 Heisman-winner Lamar Jackson in a 39-25 victory over Louisville. On offense they have a few different driving dimensions to their play. One is running back Nyheim Hines, who is averaging 5.6 yards per carry on the year. Another is fullback/wide receiver hybrid Jaylen Samuels, who has 54 catches for 453 yards on the year. Quarterback Ryan Finley has been good about orchestrating their attack, which is a ball-control approach with lots of runs and quick passes, and has not thrown a single interception this season.
Notre Dame has been playing top-10 defense for new coordinator Mike Elko. Notre Dame's linebacker corps finally put things together, and junior Tevon Coney and seniors Nyles Morgan, and Drue Tranquill (a converted safety) are the team's three leading tacklers, while back-up Greer Martini is fourth. Notre Dame has kept them very clean with a big defensive line featuring star nose tackle Jerry Tillery (6-foot-7, 305 pounds) and strongside defensive end Jay Hayes (6-foot-4, 290 pounds) anchoring the front. Sophomore weakside defensive end Daelin Hayes is a budding star opposite Hayes and is tied for team lead with Tillery with three sacks. Moving the ball methodically down the field on the Irish is rather difficult, as they tend to play things fairly conservatively and tighten down on your favorite features while leaning on their stars up front to make big plays.
The Notre Dame offense is a highly run-centric unit built around multiple-tight end sets; a future NFL left side in tackle Mike McGlinchey and guard Quenton Nelson; bruising yet explosive running back Josh Adams (9.2 yards per carry!); and dual-threat quarterback Brandon Wimbush. They have a versatile run game that can hit multiple areas with very good blockers and a lethal play-action passing game that utilizes star receiver Equanimeous St. Brown. Notre Dame might be better than any team in the ACC and is the easy favorite here, even against the plucky Wolfpack.
- Can North Carolina State sustain drives against the sound, conservative Irish defense?
- How will the Wolfpack defense hold up against the Irish run game?
- Josh Adams could put together a Heisman case with a big day in this game.
S&P Outright Pick: Notre Dame
Mississippi State (-1) at Texas A&M -- 7:15 p.m. (ESPN)
Viewed through 2017 eyes, the Texas A&M Aggies are an impressive young team with freshmen starting all over the field, including at experience-driven positions like quarterback, linebacker, and free safety. Their last two games out included a somewhat impressive showing at home against Alabama and then a narrow victory on the road against Florida. The adjusted stats say that the Aggies are not as good as their 5-2 record, but those heavily factor in early games for a team that is improving every week due to its youth.
Mississippi State has a more impressive win on their resume, a 37-7 beatdown of LSU, but was also destroyed in turn by Auburn and Georgia. It's hard to make out which teams will show up in this contest, which is probably a factor in the line, which would presumably be Mississippi State -4 at a neutral site.
Both teams rely heavily on spread running games that incorporate their quarterbacks. The Bulldogs are at their best when quarterback Nick Fitzgerald runs the ball regularly and gets loose on no-option quarterback runs. He has run for more than 100 yards in each of their last two contests. In addition to having some toughness between the tackles, Fitzgerald is a long-strider who can break long runs if he hits a crease. Texas A&M makes heavy use of zone-read and counter-read option plays that use freshman quarterback Kellen Mond on the backside of plays if opponents overcommit trying to stop their tailbacks. Mond is more or less the opposite of Fitzgerald as a runner, twitchy and powerful over short distances but lacking breakaway speed in the open field.
The Bulldogs lean more heavily on their quarterback than do the Aggies, who also boast star running back Trayveon Williams and wide receiver Christian Kirk, and that's probably a factor in why Fitzgerald has thrown seven interceptions on the year and six in his last four games. They are a little boom-or-bust depending on how well he plays.
The Aggies have been boom-or-bust on defense, leading the nation in sacks with 28 (Mississippi State has 13) but also regularly giving up big plays when the pressure doesn't get home. This game may just come down to whether Mississippi State punishes Texas A&M for their aggressiveness on defense or not.
- Can Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald protect the ball and punish A&M's defense on the blitz?
- How will Mississippi State's defense hold up against Texas A&M's option run game?
- Are the Aggies improving every week with a young team or are they due for another dud?
S&P Outright Pick: Mississippi State
S&P+ PICKS: WEEK 8
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||S&P Pick||S&P Pick against the spread||Ian's Pick against the spread|
|Oklahoma State||7||West Virginia||Oklahoma State||Oklahoma State||Oklahoma State|
|Ohio State||6.5||Penn State||Ohio State||Penn State||Penn State|
|Notre Dame||7||North Carolina State||Notre Dame||Notre Dame||Notre Dame|
|Mississippi State||1||Texas A&M||Mississippi State||Mississippi State||Texas A&M|
S&P+ Picks against the spread last week: 4-2
S&P+ Picks against the spread in 2017: 26-22
Ian Picks against the spread last week: 4-2
Ian Picks against the spread in 2017: 18-30