Coming off a wild weekend of college football that shook up the rankings a bit (after Alabama and Ohio State, that is), Week 8 has a number of games worth paying attention to as the division and conference races continue to heat up as the temperatures across the nation begin to fall. Emerging conference and potential playoff contenders are in some big spots this weekend as the stakes continue to rise each and every week.
Here is a look at five games to watch closely this weekend.
Jim Harbaugh looks for a big win against Michigan State
After losing the season opener at Notre Dame, the Michigan Wolverines have been on the move up the various rankings with a six-game winning streak. As a result, Michigan is now in a position to seriously give Ohio State a run for the Big Ten East Division. A smashing win against Wisconsin was a bit of a statement game for Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines, and one they have been waiting for since dropping the opener against the Fighting Irish. This week, Michigan heads to East Lansing to take on another top 25 team – in-state rival Michigan State.
You will hear plenty about the history Harbaugh has with Michigan State, and it has not been good. The Spartans own a 2-1 record against Michigan since Harbaugh was hired and the Spartans have held the upper hand in the series over the last decade with a record of 8-2 in the last ten years. So why is this year any different for Michigan?
Similar to 2016, Michigan has the build of a legitimate Big Ten contender with a strong foundation on defense and a power running game that can wear down opponents. Throw in a quarterback in Shea Patterson who continues to look more comfortable in the Michigan offense, and has also shown off his ability to pick up yards on the ground when needed, and all of a sudden this has the look of the most well-rounded Michigan team Harbaugh has had since his arrival. But unlike 2016, Michigan is not taking on a Michigan State team gasping for air in a lost season. This is not the best Michigan State team Dantonio has had, but the Spartans are coming off a gritty victory on the road against Penn State to creep into the top 25 this week and they always play Michigan tough.
This one has all of the ingredients to be a low-scoring defensive struggle, with Michigan owning one of the best defenses in the Big Ten and Michigan State bringing the Big Ten’s top rushing defense to the table. The Spartans will look to make Patterson beat them through the air, but that may not be Michigan State’s advantage given the shortcomings the Spartans have in the secondary. Surprisingly, Penn State failed to try and attack that weak spot last week, and it cost the Nittany Lions. If Patterson has some time to find his receivers, Michigan should be able to counter Michigan State’s defensive strategy and go home with Harbaugh evening his record against Michigan State in a second-straight win against a top 25 opponent.
Can NC State shake up the ACC picture, and the entire College Football Playoff situation?
Clemson has won three consecutive ACC titles and played in the College Football Playoff each of the past three seasons. If you are on Team Chaos this weekend, then you are rooting for NC State to upset the Tigers in Death Valley and throw a surprise curveball at the entire ACC championship picture.
This week, the last two unbeaten teams in the ACC, Clemson and NC State, will play what has grown into an important game in the ACC this season. With the way the playoff contenders appear to be lining up, one loss could be enough to knock even the ACC champion out of the four-team playoff, marking the first time the ACC has been left out of the College Football Playoff (only the ACC and SEC have been included in the playoff each of the four seasons the system has existed; the SEC was the first to have two teams play last season with Alabama and Georgia both selected). This week, however, could be the biggest hurdle for both teams en route to a potential undefeated regular season.
Clemson is the clear favorite given their strength on defense and the potential of the offense with Trevor Lawrence, while NC State is still a team many are trying to get a good feel for. Having a game against West Virginia canceled due to storms earlier this season has led us to look at what NC State has done against the likes of Georgia State, Marshall, Virginia, and Boston College. So far, it has done fine, but the real litmus test for whether or not NC State is a legitimate ACC contender is this weekend against Clemson.
Ryan Finley and NC State have come agonizingly close to topping Clemson each of the past two years, but they have yet to celebrate a win against the top team in the ACC. Just one touchdown has separated the two teams each of the past two seasons, including an overtime matchup two years ago in Death Valley. It will take more than a good outing from Finley for NC State to beat Clemson, but the sixth-year senior can give the Wolfpack a better shot at a statement win if he can avoid turning the ball over.
If NC State does score the upset of Clemson, we will have all kinds of fun figuring out how the result could impact the ACC and the playoff picture moving forward. But if Clemson wins, the picture looks a bit clearer.
Don’t forget about the Sooners
Oklahoma had a rally against Texas fall short a couple of weeks ago, but it would be extremely unwise to forget about the Sooners in the playoff discussion. At 5-1 and with one of the top offenses in the Big 12, Oklahoma is still in a good spot to play in the Big 12 championship game (a potential rematch with Texas would be the ultimate dream scenario for the Big 12). This week, the Sooners are on the road against TCU, who are reeling lately.
Since giving Ohio State some trouble for a little more than one half earlier this season, TCU has stumbled. Ohio State ran away from TCU as the second half unfolded, and Texas buried TCU by 15 points the following week. After a close call against Iowa State, Texas Tech then tied down TCU in another defensive struggle. Where has TCU’s offense gone? The Horned Frogs have been held to under 20 points in three straight games, and if they are going to beat Oklahoma, that is a trend that cannot continue.
Total touchdowns in 2018:
Oklahoma QB Kyler Murray: 26
— Kevin McGuire (@KevinOnCFB) October 18, 2018
Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray may be held in check by TCU at times, but it will be a tall order for TCU to prevent Murray from making enough big plays to have a chance of slowing down Oklahoma. Murray has 13 touchdowns in the last three games, including a six-touchdown outburst against Baylor and his four-touchdown performance in a nailbiter against Texas two weeks ago. That was also Oklahoma’s last game, as they had off last week to prepare for Gary Patterson’s defensive style.
Don’t expect a letdown from Oregon
The classic formula for a potential hangover game is sitting right there this weekend for the Oregon Ducks. A week after a monster win at home against Washington, Oregon has continued to fly up the rankings and is now going on the road for a division game against a team more than capable of giving Oregon some trouble. But do not expect Mario Cristobal to allow the Ducks to have a sloppy performance this week.
With College GameDay making their first visit to Pullman to set up on the campus of Washington State, Oregon is heading into a tough matchup on the road. The Cougars are actually a slight favorite at home, but going on the road this week may suit Oregon well. Earlier this season, after Oregon coughed away a big lead at home against Stanford only to lose, the Ducks came back on the road the following week and left no doubt against California. Washington State will be a stiffer challenge, and the fans will be more vocal in this one as well, but this is an opportunity for Oregon to prove they are not backing down in the Pac-12 North this season.
Of course, Washington State is looking to make the same claim. Both teams enter with 2-1 records in Pac-12 play and 5-1 overall. They are two of the last three one-loss teams the Pac-12 has to offer (and Colorado may fall from that category this week with a road game at Washington), so the stakes are about as high as they can get for the Ducks and Cougars, and perhaps the Pac-12 as a whole.
Expect plenty of offense in this one. The Cougars have the nation’s top-ranked passing offense with Gardner Minshew already close to 2,500 passing yards, while Justin Herbert is earning respect as one of the nation’s top players. Both teams are also averaging over 40 points per game while allowing similar points per game to opponents in the mid to low-20s. Offenses will be the story of this game, as they typically are any time Mike Leach is involved. If Orgeon can avoid turning the ball over, they will be in great shape.
Will LSU avoid an upset?
Just like Oregon and Michigan, the LSU Tigers are coming off a major victory from last week. But unlike the Ducks and Wolverines, the Tigers get to stay home this week for their contest against a ranked opponent, Mississippi State. The Bulldogs come to Baton Rouge off an upset of Auburn two weeks ago and could be playing a style of defense that could make this one a bit ugly to watch at times. Both teams tend to have the defense lead the way, so it will be up to the offenses to try and capitalize on any opportunities to seize control of the game.
Mississippi State’s offense started the year on fire in the first three weeks but has looked sluggish in SEC play. Even in a 23-9 win against Auburn, there just seemed to not be something right about Mississippi State’s offense, which was a surprising development considering Joe Moorhead’s style of play was expected to have a smooth transition with Nick Fitzgerald. Going on the road to play LSU may not the best situation to see if this offense has truly figured things out, but it would be an encouraging sign for Mississippi State fans if Fitzgerald and the offense can have some good drives against the Tigers.
There is still nothing flashy about LSU’s offense, and that doesn’t seem to bother them too much. A passing game ranked 101st in the nation and a running game ranked just 50th means LSU is happy if they win a game in ugly slobberknocker fashion as long as they win. For LSU, the defense sets the tone and it is up to Joe Burrow to not make mistakes through the air and Nick Brosette to grind out whatever yards on the ground LSU needs. Burrow has only been intercepted twice this season, and both came in LSU’s only loss of the year to Florida. Brosette has not rushed for more than 95 yards since Week 2, although he has scored seven touchdowns in the last four games.
If you like offense, watch Oregon-Washington State. If you like defense, LSU-Mississippi State will be the one to watch this weekend.