By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
10 Key Storylines to Watch for Week 9
1. Week 9 could go a long ways in determining the SEC East champ. South Carolina shares a 4-1 record with Georgia, but defeated the Bulldogs in the second week of the season. The road to winning the East got a lot tougher for the Gamecocks two weeks ago, as running back Marcus Lattimore was lost for the year due to an ACL tear. With Lattimore sidelined, the Gamecocks will turn to true freshman Brandon Wilds and junior Kenny Miles to carry the workload in Saturday’s game at Tennessee. However, South Carolina also needs quarterback Connor Shaw and the defense to step up, as Wilds and Miles can’t replace Lattimore’s production. The Gamecocks have to be licking their chops on defense, as Tennessee has scored only 25 points in its last three games, and will start true freshman Justin Worley at quarterback on Saturday. Worley will be making his first career start and has yet to throw his first pass in game action. With Arkansas and Florida remaining, South Carolina can’t afford to be upset on Saturday at Tennessee.
2. Penn State has flown under the radar this season and despite suspect quarterback play, enters Week 9 with a solid 7-1 record and control of the Leaders Division. The schedule is going to get tougher over the final few weeks, as the Nittany Lions host Illinois and Nebraska, before hitting the road to Ohio State and Wisconsin in the last two games of the year. Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden have shared time under center, combining to complete 53 percent of passes, eight touchdowns and six interceptions. Neither player has seized the No. 1 spot, but Penn State has been able to lean on running back Silas Redd and one of the Big Ten’s top defenses. The Nittany Lions rank eighth in total defense and fifth in points allowed, despite losing linebacker Michael Mauti to a torn ACL early in the season. Illinois is reeling after two straight losses, but defeated Penn State 33-13 in Happy Valley last year. The Nittany Lions are still largely untested in Big Ten play, but will the Fighting Illini find the winning formula again? Or will Penn State’s defense keep Illinois’ quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase in check, while the Nittany Lions get just enough from Redd to keep the chains moving on offense?
3. It seems all of the talk surrounding the Big East this year has been about realignment. Instead of focusing on all of the off-the-field issues, the conference should be able to turn the focus back to actual games with the West Virginia-Rutgers matchup this Saturday. Both teams lost last Friday, but are still realistic options to win the Big East title. The Mountaineers lead the conference in total offense, but the offensive line and rushing attack have been inconsistent. Also, the defense has struggled to replace some departed players from last year's unit. Rutgers has lost 16 consecutive games to West Virginia, and needs to generate some offense if it wants to end that streak. The Scarlet Knights have been winning with defense and by controlling the turnover battle. However, the offense needs to step up this week, specifically freshman quarterback Gary Nova and running back Jawan Jamison. If West Virginia can jump out to a 14-0 lead, the Scarlet Knights may struggle to generate enough offense to get back into the game.
4. Stanford has cruised to a 7-0 start, but the schedule is going to get more challenging over the next few weeks. The Cardinal travels to USC this Saturday, and takes on Oregon on Nov. 12. The Trojans dominated this series in the early 2000s, but the tide has shifted to Stanford. The Cardinal has won three out of the last four over USC. Expect NFL scouts (and maybe the Dolphins, Colts and Seahawks) to have heavy interest in this game, as Stanford’s Andrew Luck and USC’s Matt Barkley will likely be the first two quarterbacks off the board (provided they both leave school early) in April for the 2012 draft. The Trojans are quietly putting together a solid season, and a much-maligned defense has allowed only 26 points over the last two games. The Cardinal gave up a season-high 430 yards in last week’s win over Washington. And the Trojans have plenty of firepower to hang around in this game. Stanford’s secondary will also be without safety Delano Howell, which is a big loss as it tries to stop USC’s potent combination of Barkley to Woods. Can USC’s defense keep up its recent play? The Trojans are allowing only 91.1 yards per game on the ground, which will certainly be tested by Stanford’s physical offensive line and running back Stepfan Taylor. Considering the losses of Oklahoma and Wisconsin last week, the door is open for Stanford to play its way into the national title game.
5. Can Kansas State continue its magical season? The Wildcats were picked to finish near the bottom of the Big 12, but are 7-0 and ranked No. 8 in the BCS standings. Although Kansas State has been one of college football’s biggest surprises, the competition is going to increase over the next few weeks. The Wildcats host Oklahoma this Saturday, before playing Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and Texas. After last week’s loss to Texas Tech, there’s little doubt the Sooners will be one angry bunch on Saturday. Oklahoma’s national title hopes are on life support and will need a lot of help the rest of the way. A big reason for Kansas State’s success this year has been a much-improved defense. The Wildcats rank 29th nationally in total defense, but are allowing 243.3 yards per game through the air. Oklahoma quarterback Landry Jones struggled with his accuracy in last week’s loss, but expect him to get back on track this week. The Sooners should have no trouble moving the ball through the air, which means controlling the time of possession which will be critical for Kansas State’s offense. The Wildcats have proved the doubters wrong all year, but Saturday is arguably their toughest task.
6. If you like offense, then Saturday’s Baylor-Oklahoma State game is for you. Both teams are averaging over 40 points a game and feature Heisman Trophy contenders at quarterback – Brandon Weeden (Oklahoma State) and Robert Griffin (Baylor). With two dynamic offenses, whichever defense can get key stops and force turnovers will be the difference. The Cowboys rank 103rd nationally in total defense, but are tied for second with 24 forced turnovers. Baylor is slightly better in total defense, ranking 97th nationally. However, the Bears have generated only nine turnovers and opponents are averaging 4.8 yards per carry. With Oklahoma’s loss to Texas Tech last week, Oklahoma State is now in control of the Big 12. However, a loss to Baylor would end any hopes of playing for the national title. The stakes are raised for the Cowboys, and even though Baylor can match score-for-score, expect Oklahoma State to remain unbeaten for another week.
7. Determining the frontrunner in the SEC East could become clearer after this Saturday. South Carolina will be without running back Marcus Lattimore for the rest of the year, which certainly hampers its hopes to repeat as division champs. With the Gamecocks missing their best player, the door is open for Florida and Georgia to make a move in the division. The Bulldogs lost to South Carolina in Week 2, but have a favorable remaining schedule after Saturday’s game against Florida, with only Auburn and Kentucky remaining in conference play. The Gators need a lot of help in order to win the East, but should take a step back in the race with quarterback John Brantley expected to return to the lineup. Florida has dominated this series, winning five out of the last six games, including a 34-31 shootout last year. However, the Gators are reeling after three straight losses. With the Bulldogs sensing a shot to jump back into the East race, there’s a lot of urgency to win on Saturday.
8. Wisconsin’s national title hopes are likely over after last week’s last-second loss to Michigan State. However, there’s still plenty for the Badgers to play for. Wisconsin controls its destiny in the Big Ten Leaders Division and a potential rematch against the Spartans could happen in the conference title game. The Badgers hit the road for an important Big Ten game against Ohio State this Saturday. The Buckeyes snapped a two-game losing streak with a win over Illinois two weeks ago, but this team still has a lot of issues. Ohio State has struggled to establish its passing attack under freshman quarterback Braxton Miller, but the running game has totaled at least 200 yards in three of the last four games. Wisconsin is allowing 121.1 yards a game on the ground, and Ohio State can expect to see eight or nine in the box to try and slow down the rushing attack. Miller doesn’t need to have a big game, but he has to throw better than he has over the last few weeks. Although the Badgers have to be stunned at how last week’s game ended, it’s hard to see Ohio State generating enough offense to win this game.
9. Thanks to back-to-back losses by Georgia Tech, Saturday’s game with Clemson has lost a bit of its luster. These two teams have hooked up for some memorable games in recent memory, with three of the last four matchups decided by five points or less. The Yellow Jackets offense has cooled in recent weeks, largely due to a lack of big plays in the passing game. Quarterback Tevin Washington has not topped 100 passing yards in the last two weeks, after reaching that mark in the first six games. Controlling the clock and getting big plays from Washington is going to be critical for Georgia Tech’s chances at winning this game, as Clemson is averaging 40 points a game and will be difficult to slow down. The Yellow Jackets are allowing only 170.5 passing yards a game, and have allowed only one touchdown through the air in the last three contests. If Tigers’ quarterback Tajh Boyd gets on a roll early, it would be Georgia Tech’s worst nightmare. Clemson has struggled to stop the run, which should allow the Yellow Jackets to keep this one close into the fourth quarter. In a game of contrasting offensive styles, whichever team can impose its will is going to come out on top.
10. Michigan State can take a big step towards claiming the Big Ten Legends Division title on Saturday. If the Spartans knock off Nebraska, they will have wins over Michigan and the Cornhuskers, with a game at Iowa on Nov. 12 the biggest hurdle to an unbeaten record in Big Ten play. After winning such an emotional game last week, can Michigan State follow that up with the same effort this Saturday? The Cornhuskers lead the Big Ten in rushing offense, but will face a Spartan defense allowing only 88.9 yards a game on the ground. With Nebraska unlikely to have much success running against Michigan State, quarterback Taylor Martinez needs to have a big game. The sophomore is completing only 55 percent of his throws and has tossed six picks this year. If the Spartans are able to force Nebraska into throwing 25-30 times, they should be able to exit Lincoln with a victory and a commanding lead in the Legends Division.
Athlon editor Mitch Light predicts the 10 biggest games for Week 9 – here’s my take on how some of the top games will play out.
Florida State 37, NC State 20
Michigan State 24, Nebraska 20
Texas A&M 34, Missouri 24
Arkansas 34, Vanderbilt 20
Penn State 24, Illinois 17
Wake Forest 31, North Carolina 24
West Virginia 33, Rutgers 20
Oklahoma 38, Kansas State 27
Oklahoma State 48, Baylor 34
Notre Dame 38, Navy 23
Georgia 27, Florida 20
South Carolina 24, Tennessee 13
Stanford 38, USC 27
Wisconsin 27, Ohio State 17
Clemson 37, Georgia Tech 27
Looking for a few upsets? Keep a close watch on these games.
Wake Forest at North Carolina (-7)
The Demon Deacons need to keep winning to keep the pressure on Clemson in the ACC Atlantic. The Tar Heels started 5-1, but have lost their last two games. Wake Forest has won the last two in this series, including a 24-17 win in Chapel Hill.
Michigan State at Nebraska (-5.5)
After last week’s win over Wisconsin, can the Spartans recapture the momentum for another week? Michigan State’s defense won’t give up much to Nebraska on the ground, which makes quarterback Taylor Martinez’s passing even more important on Saturday.
SMU at Tulsa (-3)
The Mustangs fell on the road to Southern Miss last week, but still remain the biggest threat to Houston in Conference USA’s West Division.
San Jose State at Louisiana Tech (-9.5)
The Spartans continue to make progress under second-year coach Mike MacIntyre, winning three of their last four games, including a 28-27 thriller of Hawaii on Oct. 14.
Oregon State at Utah (-7)
The Utes are solid on defense, but offense has been an issue. The Beavers have played better recently, winning two out of their last three games.
UL Lafayette at MTSU (-3)
The Ragin’ Cajuns have been a surprise contender in the Sun Belt race, but suffered a setback with a loss to Western Kentucky last week. UL Lafayette owns one of the conference’s top offenses, while MTSU is allowing 32.5 points a game.
Around the Web: College Football’s Must Read Articles to Prepare for Week 9
Despite a painful shoulder injury, Iowa State linebacker Jake Knott continues play well.
Washington State quarterback Jeff Tuel suffered a calf injury in the loss to Oregon State and is likely out the rest of the year.
Wake Forest expects to have running back Josh Harris back in the lineup for Saturday's game at North Carolina.
Even though he struggled against Louisville, Rutgers will continue to start freshman Gary Nova at quarterback.
Florida State's defensive line has been living up to the hype this year.
Saturday's game against Florida is a big one for Georgia. Just take a look at the upcoming schedule.
Can anyone figure out the Penn State quarterback situation this year?
Utah's problems on offense aren't centered just on the quarterback position.
It's back to working on the fundamentals for Georgia Tech quarterback Tevin Washington.
Michigan State should expect to see a lot of Nebraska's no-huddle offense this Saturday.
Replacing Marcus Lattimore isn't going to be easy for South Carolina. Brandon Wilds is expected to start this Saturday against Tennessee.
Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa suffered a turf toe injury in last week's loss to Penn State. But is expected to play against Indiana this Saturday.
Since joining the starting lineup, Randall Mackey has given Ole Miss' offense a spark.
Considering the struggles of UCLA's offense, is it time to take the redshirt off and let Brett Hundley play?
Maryland could be looking at another quarterback controversy for this week's game against Boston College.
Colorado could be without quarterback Tyler Hansen for Saturday's game against Arizona State.
With an inexperienced quarterback, Ohio State is going to lean heavily on its rushing attack in the second half of the season.
LaMichael James' status for Saturday's game against Washington State is uncertain.
Arizona's offense found a rushing attack in last Thursday's win over UCLA.