The Big Ten is back! Week 8 in college football was Week 1 for the northern heavyweights of college ball and there were some interesting if somewhat unsurprising initial results. Ohio State was much more crisp than I expected in their first outing, whipping Nebraska 56-17 as quarterback Justin Fields completed 20 of 21 passes at 13.1 yards per attempt with two touchdowns and zero interceptions. With the tragic injury to Alabama's Jaylen Waddle, there's a question of whether Ohio State with wide receivers Garrett Wilson (seven catches for 129 yards and a score) and Chris Olave (six catches for 104 yards) now have the most lethal passing attack in the country.
On the more surprising side, Wisconsin of all teams also unleashed a flurry of passes while overwhelming Illinois 45-7. Redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz was also 20-of-21 at 11.8 yards per attempt with five touchdown passes to zero interceptions. The Badgers didn't run over their opponents as everyone has become accustomed to seeing, but they didn't need to thanks to this potent dimension. Then after the game, Mertz tested positive for COVID. His availability over the next few weeks is now in doubt and the Badgers had to cancel their West division rivalry game with Nebraska.
Michigan also had an interesting first outing, blistering Minnesota 49-24 with 31 carries for 256 yards at 8.1 yards per carry and five rushing touchdowns. The Wolverines' emphasis on RPO spread offense under second-year offensive coordinator Josh Gattis seems to have reached an effective fusion with Jim Harbaugh's power run schemes.
Finally, Penn State had a disastrous initial outing losing 36-35 in overtime against Indiana in a sloppy game where their own running back accidentally scored a touchdown rather than running out the clock and afforded Indiana their opportunity.
Elsewhere around the country, Oklahoma State took No. 1 contender status in the Big 12 with a 24-21 victory over Iowa State while Oklahoma managed to tread water as the frontrunner by smashing TCU. Alabama won their pyrrhic victory over Tennessee 48-17 while losing their best player Waddle. Cincinnati seized frontrunner status in the AAC with an impressive 42-13 win over SMU in which Luke Fickell's defense totally stifled the explosive Mustangs offense.
This week we'll get a large number of conference rivalry games that should set the Bg Ten and other leagues on a decisive course for the rest of the season.
All times are listed as Eastern.
Memphis at Cincinnati (-7) -- 12 p.m. (ESPN)
|Overall||Memphis (3-1)||Cincinnati (4-0)|
|When Memphis has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||29||12|
|Passing success rate||22||10|
|When Cincinnati has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||61||60|
|Passing success rate||78||16|
Cincinnati has been playing terrific defense all season and SMU was a great test of whether or not the defense could carry the team against high-powered offenses in big games. The answer was a resounding "YES!" The Bearcats shut down the SMU rushing attack, and more importantly, shut down their passing game. Mustangs quarterback Shane Buechele threw 44 passes for just 219 yards at 4.9 yards per attempt with one touchdown and one interception. SMU could only pony up 13 points while Cincinnati managed to work out some of their offensive issues in real time.
Lead Bearcats runner Gerrid Doaks had a solid day with 20 carries for 105 yards at 5.3 yards per carry and two touchdowns while quarterback Desmond Ridder finally seized the reins of the offense with a big statistical day. The junior threw 21 passes for 165 yards at 6.0 yards per attempt with a single touchdown, but added eight carries for 179 rushing yards at a whopping 22.4 yards per carry and three touchdowns. When the Cincinnati run game is humming, then their defense plus run game formula tends to smash their AAC competition because of their superior talent levels.
Memphis was their main competition last season and might be again this year if the SMU Mustangs can't hang. Ryan Silverfield has largely kept Mike Norvell's offensive system running without him and the Tigers have established a number of playmakers on offense over the course of the season. Speedy little receiver Calvin Austin III leads the passing game with 24 catches for 424 yards and five scores while flex tight end Sean Dykes has been a great chains-moving and red zone target with 23 catches for 281 yards and four more scores. Most importantly, their run game has found its footing and Rodrigues Clark and Kylan Watkins have combined for 122 carries for 650 yards at 5.3 yards per carry.
Last year in Round 1, the Bearcats slowed up the Memphis rushing attack but were undone by Tigers quarterback Brady White throwing for 233 yards at 9.1 yards per attempt with two touchdowns to one interception. Then they had a rematch in the AAC Championship Game the very next Saturday and they slowed up White but were gashed on big plays by Memphis running back Antonio Gibson (11 carries for 130 yards, two total touchdowns) and committed a pair of costly turnovers. For this contest they'll likely man up the Memphis receivers and hope to keep a safety around the box to help bracket Dykes and outnumber the run game. In the second game, Memphis beat them with a few explosive gains (29-24 final) more so than a consistent ability to generate leverage against the Cincinnati defense.
These teams could rematch in the conference title game, but it's not a foregone conclusion given SMU and Houston's relative strength this season, so this may be the only time the Bearcats have to try and overcome Memphis this season. With the Tigers slipping on defense from last season, this could be Cincinnati's chance to put them away for the rest of the year.
- Can Memphis employ a run/pass balance that can overmatch the Cincinnati defense?
- Memphis' rebuilt defense against a Bearcats offense finding its sea legs with zone-read from 12 personnel.
- Cincinnati's overall level of play in terms of talent and execution. Luke Fickell will be a prized head-coaching candidate in the 2020 coaching searches that will inevitably come.
FEI Outright Pick: Cincinnati by 4.1
Michigan State at Michigan (-24.5) -- 12 p.m. (FOX)
|Overall||Michigan State (0-1)||Michigan (1-0)|
|When Michigan State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|2019 Rushing success rate||87||92|
|2019 Passing success rate||41||16|
|When Michigan has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|2019 Rushing success rate||20||2|
|2019 Passing success rate||27||3|
These two teams had polar-opposite season openers. The Wolverines brought in a team with a new offensive line and quarterback and absolutely obliterated Minnesota's rebuilding defense. The Spartans struggled to run the ball from a pro-spread offense and had to lean on quarterback Rocky Lombardi to try and bail them out, but it went awry because they turned the ball over seven times.
The biggest question is whether Michigan State is as bad as they looked losing 38-27 to Rutgers or if it was simply a matter of sloppy ball security that will be corrected against their hated, in-state rivals. The positive side from Michigan State's disastrous opening was that Lombardi found receiver Jayden Reed on 11 balls for 128 yards and two touchdowns. The Western Michigan transfer, who had a big freshman year on the west side of the state before sitting out in Lansing in 2019, was a revelation, but unfortunately he was also responsible for two of Michigan State's six fumbles and both were lost to the Scarlet Knights.
However, if the Spartans can clean up their ball security issues, there's reason to believe that new Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker may be able to recreate Mark Dantonio's strategy even if he can't improve upon it. That strategy involved playing tough defense and controlling the ball by combining a plodding and inefficient rushing attack with effective pro-spread passing on third downs. The Spartans were a decent 7-of-17 on third downs and Lombardi's ability to find Reed portends more potential here down the line.
Michigan has been undergoing a significant transition for the last couple of seasons despite Harbaugh managing it all as head coach for this entire period. They hired Josh Gattis as offensive coordinator in 2019 to bring an RPO spread offense to Ann Arbor, which coincided with a switch to emphasize a simpler inside-zone running game. That approach struggled as the Wolverines didn't dominate with zone and quarterback Shea Patterson struggled in the read game. This season things are different. The Wolverines moved senior Ben Mason from defensive tackle back to fullback for their bowl game last season and kept him there for this game, running power, traps, isolations, and sweeps with pulling linemen and lead blockers.
Michigan State will be better off for seeing it on film against a legitimate opponent, but it'll be tough to maintain the line of scrimmage against the Michigan front. It'll be harder if there's a Game 1 to Game 2 jump in quarterback play from Joe Milton, who threw for 225 yards at 10.2 yards per attempt and a score against Minnesota. The Michigan junior quarterback is big (6-foot-5, 243 pounds) and powerful both as a runner and pushing the ball down the field.
Attacking Michigan's defense for the Spartans will hinge on pass protection, especially if they put themselves into repeated passing downs with ineffective rushing as they did against Rutgers. The Wolverines are better up front than a year ago thanks to improvements from their defensive tackles, which allows them to move star linemen Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye outside to defensive end full-time, where they combined for 10 tackles and two sacks (both by Paye) against Minnesota. New "viper" linebacker Michael Barrett was also an effective new component in the pass rush with a sack.
If the Wolverines have a weak spot, it's outside at corner where they lost star player Ambry Thomas. But Reed will line up in the slot, where the Wolverines can track him with star safety Daxton Hill in conjunction with their linebacker corps. Michigan State will need Reed to win matchups with Hill outside to be able to generate offense in this game.
- Can Michigan State control the ball with their dropback passing game on third downs and avoid turnovers?
- Michigan's evolving power-spread offense that's fusing spread spacing and RPOs with Jim Harbaugh's power run game.
- Michigan State slot receiver Jayden Reed against Michigan's star safety Daxton Hill, a matchup the Spartans need to win.
FEI Outright Pick: Michigan by 21.8
Kansas State at West Virginia (-3.5) -- 12 p.m. (ESPN2)
|Overall||Kansas State (4-1)||West Virginia (3-2)|
|When Kansas State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||93||22|
|Passing success rate||79||7|
|When West Virginia has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||56||72|
|Passing success rate||58||53|
While the numbers may not be too impressive and the senior quarterback may have been lost for the season, the Kansas State Wildcats keep chugging along in the Big 12. They smashed their rival, Kansas, last weekend 55-17 under an avalanche of punt returns (two for touchdowns!) and more big plays from freshman running back Deuce Vaughn. The 5-foot-5, 160-pound back is one of the most exciting and unique players in the country this season. He has received 61 carries in the run game for 319 yards at 5.2 yards per carry with four touchdowns, respectable numbers but not shocking for a speedy youngster. But then he has also caught 13 balls for a whopping 360 yards and another touchdown. That's 27.7 yards per catch for a player that's typically catching the ball on screens, slants, and checkdowns underneath. He's exceptional like old Kansas State running back Darren Sproles, the star of one of the school's two Big 12 championship teams (2003); his lack of height pays off with low center of gravity and impossible change of direction in space. Teams can't cover or tackle him in space and it creates opportunities for Kansas State to spread teams out and generate easy reads and throws for freshman quarterback Will Howard.
Big plays from Vaughn, special teams, and then solid "bend don't break" defense has allowed Kansas State to churn out wins this season without being particularly effective on a down-to-down basis on either side of the ball. West Virginia is more or less their polar opposites. In recent games West Virginia has been able to pick up their run game and make honest gains with power running back Leddie Brown (102 carries, 592 rushing yards, seven touchdowns). Their passing game has lagged with quarterback Jarrett Doege only averaging 7.0 yards per attempt and struggling to do damage throwing to outside receiver Sam James (23 catches for 224 yards and two touchdowns). They've had a tough go of things; Oklahoma State locked James down with senior cornerback Ro Williams while bracketing their slots in the RPO and play-action game while Baylor had similar success with their veteran corners and pressure game.
Kansas State has played well in the secondary this season, particularly since the Arkansas State game when they were punished while missing both starting safeties due to injuries and then a few other defensive backs because of COVID cases or contact tracing. They'll need to keep it up so they can involve strong safety Jahron McPherson (second-leading tackler) in limiting any gains from Brown and the West Virginia run game.
If not for the lack of explosive gains on offense on those play-action and RPO throws outside, West Virginia would be playing outstanding football this season. Their defensive line has overwhelmed a lot of opponents with the Stills brothers (Dante and Darius) dominating in the middle and opening opportunities for Arizona transfer linebacker Tony Fields and a large cohort of edge rushers. The non-Stills ends and linebackers for the Mountaineers have 13.5 sacks on their own in just five games while Darius and Dante have another 4.5 sacks between the two of them.
Matching up with those athletes in the West Virginia front is certainly a concern for a Kansas State offensive line that has been rebuilding this year with four new starters and now trying to protect a freshman quarterback. They'll have to continue to manufacture points with spread sets that allow the ball to get out quickly to Vaughn or tight end Briley Moore and with special teams.
- Kansas State's rebuilding offense and freshman quarterback against the Big 12's best defensive line.
- Can West Virginia avoid giving away field position and points against the Kansas State special teams?
- Kansas State running back Deuce Vaughn is the tiniest wrecking ball you'll have the pleasure of watching this season.
FEI Outright Pick: Kansas State by 3.7
Texas at Oklahoma State (-3.5) -- 4 p.m. (FOX)
|Overall||Texas (3-2)||Oklahoma State (4-0)|
|When Texas has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||32||14|
|Passing success rate||37||13|
|When Oklahoma State has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||35||73|
|Passing success rate||64||46|
This is a really big game for both teams. Oklahoma State is undefeated and a win over Texas always generates some excitement, even when the Longhorns are floundering. It would also effectively knock the Longhorns out of the Big 12 title race by handing them a third conference loss and putting them down in the tiebreaker against a pair of Oklahoma schools that are likely to be at the top of the standings by the end of the season. Texas is playing to stay alive in the Big 12 title race with tough games still ahead against Iowa State, West Virginia, and Kansas State. Head coach Tom Herman has been under a lot of fire and may not survive the season if Texas is knocked out of contention early after spending big on new coordinator hires to make the most of senior quarterback Sam Ehlinger's final season.
The matchup here may not be quite as close as it appears; much of Texas' offensive numbers were generated by Ehlinger running two-minute offense late against Texas Tech and Oklahoma where he erased a pair of two-touchdown leads late in games (down 56-41 against Tech and 31-17 vs. Oklahoma) to force overtimes. Aside from those miraculous comebacks, the Longhorns offense has been plodding and inefficient. Their outside receivers have been unable to get open against man coverage, which is surely forthcoming against Oklahoma State's star cornerback Ro Williams, and the run game has struggled to find consistency while employing some new outside zone schemes brought by new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich (formerly of Oklahoma State).
Oklahoma State's defense has been uniquely good (for them) and their best unit since the 2013 unit that propelled a 10-win team, or the 2011 team that won Mike Gundy and the Cowboys their only Big 12 Championship. Williams is the main star, but their pass rush from defensive end Trace Ford and linebacker Cal Bundage as well as the play of their linebackers and safeties has this unit clamping down on opponents. If Texas can't create matchups for their better receivers in the slot or establish the run game (likely with heavy doses of Ehlinger himself) then they will struggle to get many points on the board against the Cowboys.
The Cowboys offense hasn't been super explosive just yet, but they've also only played five quarters with starting quarterback Spencer Sanders, and one of those quarters came against an Iowa State defense that is notoriously tough to be explosive against. Oklahoma State actually dealt a fair amount of damage to the Cyclones "flyover defense" last weekend but a pair of bad decisions-turned-interceptions by Sanders prevented more scoring and actually kept Iowa State in the game.
Texas' challenge against this offense is in the fact that the Cowboys have terrific speed and skill outside with wide receiver Tylan Wallace and then Dillon Stoner and Braydon Johnson. The Cowboys can also split them extra wide and away from the box because Sanders has a cannon arm that doesn't struggle to throw perimeter screens and outs all the way out to the numbers. But then when the defense is spread wide it's hard to get numbers in the alley against the zone-option run game, which features lead blocking by tight ends and then Sanders and star running back Chuba Hubbard. The Longhorns will likely choose to match up in man coverage outside and use their nickel to protect the alley and keep the Oklahoma State run game under control. If that doesn't work because Wallace is burning them over the top, Texas will have to find answers they haven't produced yet this season and try to stop the zone-option run game with an undermanned box featuring a pair of inexperienced and mistake-prone linebackers.
The hope for Texas is that Ehlinger can manufacture offense and the Longhorns defense keeps them in this game because their defensive line overmatches a Cowboys offensive line with a pair of walk-on starters and their secondary can hold up outside in isolation against Wallace and the Oklahoma State receiving corps. Those two areas will come to a head when Oklahoma State wants to throw double moves off play-action. If Texas can't disrupt those at the line of scrimmage with pressure this game could be ugly for Herman.
- Can Texas manufacture a passing game against the Oklahoma State secondary?
- Oklahoma State's play-action game against the Texas defensive line and athleticism at cornerback and field safety.
- Will Tom Herman be able to keep the Longhorns in this game and competitive in this season?
FEI Outright Pick: Oklahoma State by 4.1
Ohio State (-12) at Penn State -- 7:30 p.m. (ABC)
|Overall||Ohio State (1-0)||Penn State (0-1)|
|When Ohio State has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|2019 Rushing success rate||22||37|
|2019 Passing success rate||1||16|
|When Penn State has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|2019 Rushing success rate||100||42|
|2019 Passing success rate||97||26|
Their humiliating defeat against Indiana notwithstanding, Penn State always gives Ohio State a whale of a game. No one will be shocked if it proves to be the case that the Nittany Lions were looking ahead to the Buckeyes and trying to ensure a master game plan for the big rivalry game at home. It helps the Buckeyes that the crowd won't be packed with white shirts -- former Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer has noted that he thinks the whiteout home games are worth a seven- to 10-point margin for the Lions.
Still, Penn State will amp up the crowd noise and their team will be well prepared to put the previous loss behind them and bring a tough, focused effort into this game. Last year they gave Ohio State fits by leveraging their strong linebacker corps to resist the Buckeyes rushing attack. It took Ohio State star runner J.K. Dobbins 35 carries to run for 157 yards, much of it coming late in the game after the Buckeyes finally wore Penn State down.
There will be two big challenges for Penn State to be competitive in this one. The first is how to generate offense. Against Indiana they struggled to run the ball effectively unless utilizing quarterback Sean Clifford, who had a big game with 17 carries for 119 yards and a score. Lead running back Journey Brown had just 69 yards on 20 carries. The passing game averaged just 6.8 yards per attempt with three touchdowns but two interceptions and mostly featured tight end Pat Freiermuth and receiver Jahan Dotson. Ohio State will play their customary man coverage in this game with athletic outside linebackers Baron Browning and Pete Werner matching Freiermuth and helping to account for the quarterback in the run game.
The other big challenge is working out how to stop Ohio State's spread passing game. With Justin Fields, Garrett Wilson, and Chris Olave one year better and more cohesive behind another great offensive line, this is a very difficult offense to stop. Nebraska managed to cover up the spread passing sets on a few occasions only to see Fields take off for 54 rushing yards and a touchdown. The combination of Fields' scrambling and Ohio State's receiver talent from their empty passing game is a challenge well beyond most defenses. That challenge is exacerbated for Penn State by the fact that their star linebackers are gone -- Cam Brown was drafted by the New York Giants and Micah Parsons opted out of the 2020 season to focus on the next draft.
The Nittany Lions will still have talent at linebacker; the question will be whether Jesse Luketa and Ellis Brooks are ready to lead this team and the "Linebacker U" tradition in their second game as the men in the middle. Penn State's secondary is in better shape with the return of cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, nickel Lamont Wade, and redshirt freshman cornerback Joey Porter Jr. Porter is the son of the star Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker and burst onto the scene last week against Indiana with five tackles, a sack, and a pass break-up. If this new back end is ready to match up with Ohio State's skill talent, we should have a close game. Up front the Nittany Lions are in better shape with star defensive end Shaka Toney back rushing the edge.
- Can Penn State's defensive backfield hold up against Ohio State's spread passing attack and Justin Fields' scrambling?
- Ohio State's man coverage defense looking to corral the quarterback run game -- that has been their weak spot in previous years.
- How much will the atmosphere affect the game without a packed house?
FEI Outright Pick: Ohio State by 12.4
Arkansas at Texas A&M (-12.5) -- 7:30 p.m. (SECN)
|Overall||Arkansas (2-2)||Texas A&M (3-1)|
|When Arkansas has the ball||Offense||Defense|
|Rushing success rate||94||16|
|Passing success rate||36||79|
|When Texas A&M has the ball||Defense||Offense|
|Rushing success rate||50||17|
|Passing success rate||26||17|
It has been an exciting season for Arkansas fans. The Razorbacks are a respectable 2-2 with respectable losses to Georgia and Auburn and then a pair of wins over division foes Mississippi State and Ole Miss. A win in this game would be enormous for new head coach Sam Pittman and position the Hogs to have a chance at finishing amongst the top three teams in the SEC West by season's end.
Texas A&M fans are excited as well. After the predictable punishing loss early to Alabama, the Aggies have been surging with wins over Florida and Mississippi State. The A&M rushing attack has really picked up and lead running back Isaiah Spiller had a nice 18-carry, 114-rushing yard day against the Bulldogs in their victory two weeks ago. The Aggies have now had a bye week to prepare for this rivalry game, which is normally played at AT&T Stadium in Arlington (home of the Dallas Cowboys) but this season will take place on A&M's campus in College Station. Since they kicked off this rivalry series as conference opponents in 2012 with A&M's move to the SEC, it has been pretty close in scoring margin despite the Razorbacks' relative malaise over that period.
The Aggies are 8-0 in this game, but three of those wins came in overtime and only three contests had a final margin of more than one possession in A&M's favor. The Razorbacks have treated this game very seriously, probably in part because their program strategy hinges on recruiting the DFW metroplex and East Texas effectively, and this game increases their exposure in those regions.
2020's matchup comes down to the Razorbacks defense going up against A&M's offense. Pittman hired Barry Odom to coach the Hogs defense this season and the well-respected defensive guru has the Arkansas defense playing at a high level out of the gate. The Razorbacks have been playing four or five defensive backs at a time that all check in under 200 pounds and have used that flexibility and speed on the back end to eliminate big plays from opponents. The obvious counter to that strategy from A&M will be to lean even more into their run game and look to overpower the Razorbacks at the line of scrimmage.
Auburn had success here with running back Tank Bigsby running the ball 20 times for 146 yards at 7.3 yards per carry in the Tigers' win over the Razorbacks. A&M could try a similar approach of grinding out yards against the smaller Arkansas secondary, assuming that their own offensive line can continue to win at the point of attack against the Hogs defensive front as it has done against other opponents. That approach doesn't tend to yield big numbers on the scoreboard but that may not be necessary.
Arkansas has not been terribly explosive or effective on offense this season. Pittman didn't inherit a particularly large or talented offensive line in Fayetteville and his offensive coordinator Kendal Briles (son of Art Briles) doesn't yet have the sort of power run game that has made his RPO/play-action spread hum in the past. Arkansas' lead running back Trelon Smith has 56 carries for 221 yards this season at 3.9 yards per carry with zero rushing touchdowns. The Hogs have had to do their damage working the ball to big slot receiver Treylon Burks, a 6-foot-3, 232-pound sophomore who serves as a sort of full-time flex tight end for their offense.
A&M's defense has very stout up front on defense since Jimbo Fisher came and brought Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko. They are vulnerable to the passing game on the back end and attacking them effectively will hinge on whether Arkansas can find Burks in the seams for big, drive-building gains.
- Can Arkansas' small and speedy secondary keep a lid on the Aggies run game?
- Texas A&M's big defensive front against a small and inexperienced Arkansas offensive line.
- Can Arkansas get big slot receiver Treylon Burks open in the seams on the Aggies safeties?
FEI Outright Pick: Texas A&M by 7.9
FEI PICKS: WEEK 9
|Favorite||Spread||Underdog||FEI Pick||FEI Pick
Against the Spread
Against the Spread
|at Michigan||24.5||Michigan State||Michigan||Michigan State||Michigan State|
|at West Virginia||3.5||Kansas State||Kansas State||Kansas State||Kansas State|
|at Oklahoma State||3.5||Texas||Oklahoma State||Oklahoma State||Oklahoma State|
|Ohio State||12||at Penn State||Ohio State||Ohio State||Ohio State|
|at Texas A&M||12.5||Arkansas||Texas A&M||Arkansas||Arkansas|
FEI picks against the spread in Week 8: 4-2
FEI picks against the spread this year: 23-16-1
Ian's picks against the spread in Week 8: 3-3
Ian's Picks against the spread this year: 21-18-1