We’ve entered the stretch run of the college football season, and there are still plenty of upsets to be had. Several may come this weekend. Let’s dive right into the Week 9 Viewing Guide.
Miami at Notre Dame (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, NBC): It’s not the most fascinating edition of “Catholics vs. Convicts,” but it’s a matchup between two reeling teams that both need a win. Miami’s season looks like it has derailed after its gut-wrenching 20–19 loss to Florida State, and Notre Dame has probably been the nation’s biggest flop this season. The Hurricanes’ dreary performance in their 37–16 loss to Virginia Tech this season was a reminder that Mark Richt has evident talent on the roster but still has a great deal of program building to do before the Hurricanes can re-enter the national elite.
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly probably didn’t help himself (again) after bristling in response to athletic director Jack Swarbick’s vote of confidence, and a loss will probably further damage his increasingly tenuous hold on the job. Barring a 3–9 finish, it’s hard to believe that Kelly will go anywhere, but his inability to swallow his controversial and often whiny comments likely doesn’t go over well at one of the nation’s most prideful programs.
Texas Tech at TCU (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2): It’s the weekly Big 12 POINTSPLOSION. Tune in this week to see if Texas Tech and Patrick Mahomes can eclipse 794 yards passing and still lose!
Arizona State at Oregon (Saturday, 5 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Network): Head coach Mark Helfrich’s seat went from quite toasty to blistering hot after losing to Cal, a program that Oregon hadn’t lost to since 2008. At 2–5, a bowl game is highly unlikely; now Helfrich just needs to save his job. The Ducks have a promising freshman quarterback in Justin Herbert, who threw for six touchdowns against the Bears but lost the game with an interception in overtime. Playing with one of the game’s worst pass defenses on the other side of the ball doesn’t help. Despite the arrival of defensive coordinator Brady Hoke, Oregon ranks 118th in the nation in pass defense and has surrendered 122 points in its last two games. A loss to a hampered Arizona State team, which would be the Ducks’ third home loss this season, could well be the death knell for Helfrich.
Cal at USC (Thursday, 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN): Is this the year? Cal hasn’t beaten USC since the first term of the Bush administration and there is no win that the fan base yearns for more than one over the Trojans. It’s a lopsided rivalry—if you can even call it that. USC has logged 11 straight wins over the Bears (actually 12 ... one was vacated due to NCAA sanctions) and looks poised to add another.
After a rough start to the season, the Trojans have rallied behind redshirt freshman quarterback Sam Darnold, who has thrown for 13 touchdowns to just two interceptions since inheriting the starting job in late September. Cal will need to cultivate some kind of pass rush, something it has struggled to do all season, to limit Darnold and star receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who has 21 catches for 368 yards and six touchdowns over his last three games.
The Bears will want to turn this one into a shootout to win. The key to that will be whether lead receiver Chad Hansen, who missed the 52–49 win over Oregon with an ankle injury, suits up. If he plays, Hansen will likely be matched up with USC’s top defensive back Adoree’ Jackson, which should present a challenge to quarterback Davis Webb.
If you can stay awake until the conclusion, the Bears will probably reward you. After their 51–31 win over Hawaii to open the season, Sonny Dykes’ squad has had every game since then decided by ten points or fewer.
No. 2 Michigan at Michigan State (Saturday, Noon ET, ESPN): You remember what happened last year, right? No? O.K., fine, let’s watch it again.
That play never gets old, does it? Now that Michigan State is 2–5 and Michigan is ranked No. 2 in the nation, Jim Harbaugh probably wants to obliterate the Spartans the way he did Rutgers. It may look like a mismatch on face, but the vitriol that exists between these two teams is enough reason to tune in.
No. 14 Florida at Georgia (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, CBS): The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party returns with about as little fanfare as it has had in years. Florida is a solid, if unspectacular unit that bludgeons teams to death with its defense full of future NFL starters. The Bulldogs have a promising young quarterback (Jacob Eason) but receivers who are struggling to catch his passes. Even the desirable running back tandem of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel has produced limited success in a year in which the Bulldogs were expected to contend for an SEC East title under first-year coach Kirby Smart. The Gators need this one to remain in contention for the SEC East title, which is looking challenging because of Tennessee’s easy remaining schedule.
No. 8 Baylor at Texas (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC): Squaring off against Baylor feels like bad news for the Texas defense, but remember that this is the same Bears team that barely fended off Iowa State and has played one of the nation’s easiest schedules up to this point in the season. Texas is coming off of a hard-fought (but decisive) 24–21 loss against Kansas State, and Charlie Strong’s hold on the head coaching job looks even slighter after athletic director Mike Perrin refused to discuss Strong’s status after the loss. Beating Baylor, which remains undefeated despite dressing around 70 scholarship players this season, might give Strong a jolt, but he probably needs to win out to save his job.
Baylor remains overshadowed by the sexual assault scandal that rocked the campus this summer, but interim head coach Jim Grobe has done an admirable job holding the unit together. Quarterback Seth Russell has quietly compiled another outstanding season, throwing for 1470 yards and 16 touchdowns for the nation’s fourth-ranked offense.
For Texas to win this game, it’ll need to pressure Russell and somehow cover Baylor star receiver KD Cannon. The odds aren’t great, but Strong may need to push his team to do it if he has any hope of salvaging his job.
No. 13 Boise State at Wyoming (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network): UPSET ALERT. The Broncos are widely expected to run the table behind the outstanding play of running back Jeremy McNichols and wide receiver Thomas Sperbeck, but this might be the game that trips them up. Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl, now in his third year after leaving the nation’s best FCS program in North Dakota State, has the Cowboys at 5–2 and 3–0 in conference play.
One forgotten result from the beginning of the season was Wyoming’s tilt with Nebraska, a game that ended 52–17 but was 21–17 entering the fourth quarter. Bohl is a highly respected coach because of the work he did building the Bison into a national powerhouse, and he’s molding the Cowboys into one of the stronger teams in the Mountain West. This is a game unfortunately buried by other high-profile primetime matchups, but it could be one of the most electric Group of Five contests of the season.
No. 10 West Virginia at Oklahoma State (Saturday, Noon ET, FOX): In a week with upset potential everywhere, Stillwater will be the site of one most likely to shake up the Big 12 title race. West Virginia entered the year expected to finish in the middle of the Big 12 pack and eventually fire head coach Dana Holgorsen due to the arrival of a new athletic director.
Now, the Mountaineers are undefeated midway through the season and angling for a playoff spot. However, to escape a stiff challenge from a dangerous but inconsistent Oklahoma State team, they’ll need another strong performance out of the defense. For more on how defensive coordinator Tony Gibson has turned that unit around, read Andy Staples on the “secret” that isn’t exactly a secret.
No. 4 Washington at No. 17 Utah (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1): Washington has shot up to No. 4 in the AP poll, but there’s a good chance that several college football enthusiasts haven’t watched them yet (unless they tuned into the Huskies’ Friday night obliteration of Stanford at the beginning of October). Now’s the time to do it. Sophomore quarterback Jake Browning is right in the thick of the Heisman Trophy race, throwing for 1,709 yards and 26 touchdowns to just two interceptions during the first seven games of the season. Meanwhile, running back Myles Gaskin is averaging over six yards a carry and has three consecutive 100-yard games. The Huskies’ defense, led by one of the nation’s best defensive coordinators in Pete Kwiatkowski, may be even better. The Huskies are unfazed by quick-strike offenses—they held Oregon to just 21 points—and are even better against traditional attacks like Stanford’s. They’ll need to shut down Utah running back Joe Williams, who logged 315 yards against UCLA last week, to remain undefeated and on track for a playoff berth.
No. 7 Nebraska at No. 11 Wisconsin (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN): This one wins the award for “unlikeliest big game at this point in the season.” Wisconsin is the nation’s best two-loss team, using its smothering defense to limit some of the nation’s top teams (Michigan, Ohio State, LSU) and win tough games despite a generally limited offense outside of running back Corey Clement. The Badgers lost one of their best players, linebacker Jack Cichy, to a torn pectoral muscle this week, so it will be up to T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel, who missed two games with a foot injury earlier this season, to make up for Cichy’s absence.
Mike Riley has done a wondrous job with Nebraska in just his second season on the job, converting a formerly inconsistent quarterback in Tommy Armstrong into one of the more secure signal-callers in the Big Ten. The Cornhuskers don’t have a marquee win yet (their non-conference win over Oregon doesn’t have the same luster as it did in Week 3), but they are eerily reminiscent of last year’s Iowa team that won twelve games and came within a yard of winning the Big Ten and making the playoff. If Nebraska can dominate time of possession and limit Clement, it stands a good chance of leaving Madison still undefeated.
No. 15 Auburn at Ole Miss (Saturday, 7:15 p.m. ET, SEC Network): It’s hard to imagine a more improved in-season team than Auburn, which looked on its way to seven or eight losses after Week 4 and has now thrust itself into the top 15. Running back Kamryn Pettway has been the engine behind a revitalized offense, bulldozing defenders en route to 363 rushing yards and five touchdowns over the last two contests. Head coach Gus Malzahn was one of the prime hot-seat candidates entering the season but has rejiggered the offense with the help of coordinator Rhett Lashlee to dominate teams on the ground. With a limited starting QB in Sean White but a strong offensive line and a host of nimble runners, Malzahn’s offense rushed for an astounding 543 yards in the Tigers’ 56–3 shredding of Arkansas last weekend.
Lest we forget, the work of defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, in his first season after Will Muschamp left the Tigers to coach South Carolina, and defensive line coach Rodney Garner has shined. Auburn has a trove of defensive talent—defensive linemen Byron Cowart and Carl Lawson were five-star recruits in high school—that coalesced last weekend after a bye week. The defense limited Arkansas, a team that thrives on its powerful offense, to 25 yards rushing and logged four sacks of quarterback Austin Allen. If you want to beat Auburn, you’ll need to block.
Ole Miss is reeling after being manhandled in a 38–21 loss at LSU last weekend. The Rebels had no answer for Leonard Fournette, who at one point had 249 yards rushing and three touchdowns on seven carries, and they looked generally overmatched. Auburn’s ferocious rushing attack hardly looks like a good prescription for Hugh Freeze’s squad, but the offense can still put up big numbers behind quarterback Chad Kelly. If Ole Miss goes up by two touchdowns, then it will be increasingly difficult for Auburn to get back into the game.
No. 3 Clemson at No. 12 Florida State (Saturday, 8 p.m. ET, ABC): It’s a matchup between the ACC’s two best programs that will inevitably alter the playoff picture. If Clemson wins, its road to the playoff and an undefeated season is clear. If the Tigers lose, then they becomes one of a host of talented one-loss teams that will need to win out in order to salvage their playoff chances. Clemson QB Deshaun Watson has looked better of late, but the Tigers will need a more fluid offensive performance than the one they submitted against NC State (a game they would have lost if not for a missed Wolfpack field goal) to beat the Seminoles.