The Big Ten and Mountain West are joining college football party this week. And while they’re both fashionably late – but not as late as the MAC or Pac-12 – their arrival means the volume of games increases and story lines get more intriguing.
Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin are all harboring thoughts of reaching the College Football Playoff. They’ll be looking to get their season’s off on the right foot. As other leagues have shown, there should be some bumps in the road with an unprecedented preparation for the season and the lack of non-conference matchups allowing a smooth segue into conference play.
For those almost at the midpoints of their season, there’s still games with conference championship an playoff implications on the line, meaning there’s something for everyone in Week 8.
Here are the five biggest questions for Saturday:
What would be a positive for Michigan?
A win, first of all, for the No. 17 Wolverines against No. 21 Minnesota. But there are certain markers beyond the final score that might suggest that Michigan is capable of winning the Big Ten title. One would be the play of new quarterback Joe Milton, who oozes talent but has made 11 pass attempts across his first two seasons. Another is how the secondary fares against a Minnesota passing game that finished second in the conference last season in efficiency. The Wolverines closed last season allowing a combined seven touchdowns on 12.3 yards per attempt in losses to Ohio State and Alabama. Saturday’s prime-time matchup against a trendy program would show progress and set up Michigan as a contender in the East division.
Is this the Big 12 game of the year?
It’s hard to conceive that the conference won by Oklahoma for the past five seasons will have its showcase game without the Sooners. That’s what Saturday’s clash between No. 6 Oklahoma State and No. 18 Iowa State in Stillwater looks like. The Cowboys and Cyclones are two of three teams – along with Kansas State – unbeaten in Big 12 play. Oklahoma already has losses to the latter two, putting it on the outside of the race. OSU quarterback Spencer Sanders is healthy after being injured in the first quarter of the season opener. True freshman Shane Illingworth has filled in admirably. Both could play. Iowa State’s tandem of quarterback Brock Purdy and running back Breece Hall will carry the team’s hopes of road upset that puts them in the driver’s seat for a spot in the conference championship game. Should be a fun shootout with plenty of drama.
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Will the real North Carolina stand up?
The Tar Heels are facing a crossroad for their season. Things looked to be going smoothly after their rise to No. 6 in the Amway Coaches Poll. An awful first half against Florida State led to a shocking loss that raised concerns about whether UNC is an ACC contender or pretender. There’s still time to get back in the race, but there has to be a response this week against No. 22 North Carolina State. The Wolfpack are quietly 4-1 in the conference, albeit against middle-of-the-pack competition. It may not be appreciated nationally, but this a fierce rivalry with no love lost between the programs. The pressure is squarely on the Tar Heels, however, given their high expectations. We’ll see if they can handle the heat.
Can Cincinnati or SMU make a push for the top four?
The biggest game of the year in the Group of Five pits No. 10 Cincinnati and No. 16 SMU in a matchup of the last two unbeaten teams in the American. The Bearcats have been as good as expected but with little fanfare, partially as a result of playing just once since Sept. 26. SMU is on the verge of taking the next step under coach Sonny Dykes. The winner is the unquestioned favorite to earn the access-bowl bid to the New Year’s Six. By running the table the rest of the way, the winner might even have a case for the national semifinals should one or more Power Five champions play fewer games than scheduled due to the cancellations caused by COVID-19.
Who is on upset alert?
Everyone. It’s been that sort of season. Well, not No. 1 Clemson, which shouldn’t struggle with Syracuse. Or No. 2 Alabama, which owns Tennessee. But No. 3 Notre Dame can’t overlook Pittsburgh, which has lost three straight by a combined 14 points and needs a win to salvage its season. No. 7 Penn State won’t sleep on Indiana, which nearly knocked off the Nittany Lions in each of the past two seasons. And two Group of Five teams on the back end of the Top 25 need to watch out: No. 24 Coastal Carolina will be tested by Georgia Southern and No. 25 Marshall takes on Florida Atlantic.