- Ohio State and Penn State go into their showdown with a key matchup in the spotlight, while Florida State and Notre Dame enter a stretch where they can't have afford slip-ups.
So far this season, the Buckeyes’ offense has differentiated itself from units in years past, when Ohio State traded on defense and not much else. In 2017, it's been putting up points every week thanks to J.T. Barrett’s development and new coordinator Kevin Wilson’s unpredictable, productive offense. In fact, going into the game against Penn State, Ohio State is ranked No. 3 in the country in total offense, which is quite the jump over the next-best unit Penn State has faced—which happens to be Northwestern.
Sure, Penn State is a very, very good team. But it hasn’t gone up against much in the way of formidable offense. As of this week, the Wildcats are the 74th-best offense in college football, which is a far cry from what Ohio State has done thus far. Does that mean Penn State is guaranteed to lose? Absolutely not. Its defense hasn’t exactly let any of these less-than-stellar opponents get close; the Nittany Lions’ average margin of victory is more than 30 points, and the most points they've allowed this season were 19 to Iowa.
That’s not to say all hope is lost for the Buckeyes either. These are two very, very good units—although there seems to be more trust in Penn State’s defense, which is likely a result of that zero in the loss column. Beating the Nittany Lions and besting their top-flight defense is just what Barrett and company need to legitimize what they’ve done thus far this season, also against subpar opponents. It’ll take more than 20 points to beat Penn State—and likely 30 or 40—which is nothing Ohio State hasn’t done before this season. It just hasn’t faced a defense even half as good as what it has in store Saturday.
Florida State: At 2–4 going into Week 9, the Seminoles are in real danger of missing a bowl game for the first time since 1981. To get eligible, Jimbo Fisher and company will need to win four of their final five games, one of which is against Clemson. Realistically, then, Florida State needs to beat each of its non-Clemson opponents: Boston College this week, then Syracuse, Delaware State and Florida. Sure, none of those opponents is especially daunting, but only Delaware State looks like a sure bet. Florida might also be playing for bowl eligibility in that season-ending game, and Boston College and Syracuse are competent, if at times unpredictable, ACC opponents.
In short, this means the pressure is on, Saturday at Boston College and from here on out for a Florida State team whose fans expect a lot more than what they’ve gotten this year.
Christian Chapman and Rashaad Penny: It’s okay if you’ve never heard of San Diego State’s quarterback and running back, respectively—or if you’ve forgotten that just two weeks ago we were talking about the then-undefeated Aztecs as a potential New Year’s Six team. Since then, they’ve lost two straight. One, to Boise State, was hardly shocking, but the three points they mustered last week against Fresno State came as a surprise. Though they’re already bowl eligible, they’ve largely fallen out of the conversation.
Still, this was—and might still be—a very good team, albeit with some offensive woes of late. An inability to achieve any balance on offense has been the through line of San Diego State’s recent losses, and Penny, who was averaging 165.5 yards rushing through the team’s first six games, has put up 53 and 69 yards the past two weeks. Meanwhile, Chapman has been inaccurate; against Boise, though he threw for a season-high 240 yards and completed just 44.4% of his passes as the run game stalled and the team relied on him for nearly all its offensive production. Last week against Fresno State, he finished with just 77 yards in the air. In order to the Aztecs to get back on track, they’re going to need these two to find their stride again and to get back to the balanced offense that saw them go undefeated through six games.
Notre Dame: The Irish may be frequent mentions on this list going forward in 2017; after they beat USC handily last weekend, there’s no doubt this 6–1 team is for real as it heads deeper into the meat of its schedule. With NC State, Wake Forest, Miami, Navy and Stanford on the docket, Brian Kelly’s team won’t have any wiggle room, but it’ll be impossible for the playoff committee to ignore an 11–1 Notre Dame team come December. The Irish have a chance to disrupt the playoff picture and be the first independent picked, which means a lot is riding on the next month—and the Irish have to be perfect. Sure, a close loss to a very good NC State, Miami or Stanford team might not seem like a death knell at first glance, but it’ll be much easier to relegate a two-loss Notre Dame to a New Year’s Six bowl. And while that wouldn’t be a disaster by any means, the Irish are poised to make history if they keep up their current clip.
Jake Browning and his offensive line: Washington has had a week off since it lost, 13–7 at Arizona State, in the worst weekend the Pac-12 North has seen in some time. Browning, the Huskies quarterback, was sacked a whopping five times in that game, matching the total number of times he’d been sacked through the team’s first six games. The quarterback was beat up and inaccurate, completing 17 of 30 passes; that’s not necessarily a horrific total, but this is a guy who’s completed more than 75% of his passes in three games this season. Washington needs Browning if it wants to keep its playoff hopes alive, and Browning needs to be able to stay upright if he wants to be the game-changing quarterback he’s proven he can be.
Kyle Kempt: Since Iowa State began its current three-game winning streak by beating Oklahoma, there’s been one consistent change from its 2–2 start: Kempt has been starting as the Cyclones’ quarterback. Replacing the injured Jacob Park, who has since taken a leave from the team, Kempt has logged road wins against two ranked Big 12 opponents (plus a home shutout of Kansas), and he’s completing 69.7% of his passes this season with a 7:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Iowa State is ranked in the AP’s top 25 for the first time in more than a decade, and on Saturday, it has the chance to play spoiler for a second time this year to a top-10 team when it faces No. 4 TCU at home. Even a strong performance against the Horned Frogs would work as coach Matt Campbell continues to turn around the Big 12’s northernmost—and most often forgotten—program.