Week 8 storylines: What to watch for in college football's biggest matchups

Can Utah survive a trip to USC? Can Florida State and Clemson avoid upsets in the ACC? Sizing up the top storylines to watch in Week 8.
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It’s hard to believe that we’re already at the midway point of the 2015 season. This is a familiar feeling: The off-season is interminably long, and then all the games are played in a flash. The good news? If the second half is anything like the first, we could be headed for an unbelievable finish and a dramatic College Football Playoff.

If these first seven weeks seemingly have provided too much drama, Week 8 could serve as the perfect breather. There’s just one matchup pitting ranked teams, and both are coming off disappointing losses. Yet weeks with an apparent dearth of intriguing games often produce some of the most shocking results. With this in mind, for any would-be conference or national contender, Saturday boils down to securing a win, no matter how large the margin.

Here are five storylines to watch in Week 8:

1. Texas A&M and Ole Miss meet with hopes of staying alive in SEC race

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Five weeks ago Ole Miss was ranked in the top five and had become a prime playoff contender after taking down mighty Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Two weeks ago Texas A&M was 5–0 and poised to assert itself in the SEC and playoff race. Entering Week 8, the sky hasn’t completely fallen, but both teams’ seasons are trending downward. Ole Miss was blown out by Florida in Week 5 and upset by Memphis last Saturday, while the Aggies whiffed badly on their chance to rise past ‘Bama in the SEC West hierarchy with their loss to the Tide in College Station last week.

The loser of this week’s matchup can effectively kiss its division hopes goodbye (and Ole Miss is likely already eliminated from the playoff after its loss to Memphis). Texas A&M would already have two conference losses with a trip to LSU still ahead. The Rebels would also have two losses, and their potential tiebreaker over Alabama is probably already moot—barring some completely unexpected results, the winner of Bama-LSU on Nov. 7 should capture the SEC West. After last week’s disappointments, and with both programs struggling to take meaningful steps forward, it’s fitting that Texas A&M and Ole Miss would meet this week.

2. Forget the off-field issues: USC will be a legitimate challenge for Utah

In fact, the Trojans might present the toughest regular-season game the Utes have left. At first blush, this might sound a bit over the top. The off-field distractions surrounding Steve Sarkisian’s firing, not to mention athletic director Pat Haden’s health scare last Saturday, aren’t exactly conducive to the Trojans upsetting a playoff contender. But USC still boasts a lot of talent, and few can match the quarterback-receiver combo of Cody Kessler and JuJu Smith-Schuster.

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With their effort against Notre Dame last week—the Irish didn’t take the lead for good until the fourth quarter, and even then USC still had a shot—Kessler and Co. proved they aren’t giving up on the season. Plus, Utah’s other remaining quality opponents look much less imposing than they did a few weeks ago. Arizona was blown out by UCLA and Stanford in its only two tests of the year, while the Bruins have lost two straight since beating the Wildcats. Those are the only two teams left on Utah’s slate that currently stand above .500. USC, then, looms as arguably the Utes’ most challenging remaining opponent, and a slip-up would dent their playoff hopes.

3. Clemson and Florida State cannot be caught napping on the road

The clear two best teams in the ACC, Clemson and Florida State, have been on a collision course since before the season, and now whoever wins their Nov. 7 matchup has a relatively clear path to the ACC title game and a playoff bid. Neither squad is likely to lose any other game remaining on its conference schedule, but each faces a tricky road test this week, with Clemson traveling to Miami and Florida State to Georgia Tech. In fact, these probably are the biggest remaining in-conference hurdles for each team.

The Hurricanes appear headed to another middling season, but after nearly beating Florida State and topping Virginia Tech the last two weeks, they’ll enter this game with some confidence, and quarterback Brad Kaaya has been impressive in throwing 10 touchdowns to just one interception. The Yellow Jackets aren’t of the same caliber as last season’s Orange Bowl-winning team, but their ground attack is still potent, ranking 14th nationally in yards per rush at 5.63. Florida State saw firsthand in last year’s ACC title game that the triple option is never easy to prepare for. Clemson and FSU are decisively better than their respective opponents, but the risk of defeat is real if they aren’t careful.

4. Ahead of LSU, Alabama looks to continue dominance over Tennessee

The same Nov. 7 date that brings Florida State-Clemson will also see Alabama and LSU square off in another of the season’s biggest games. That matchup should decide the SEC West, and the winner will have an excellent shot at making the playoff as well. While “looking ahead” can sometimes be a problem, this week the Tide host Tennessee, a team they’ve beaten eight straight times. The dominance goes even further: the Volunteers haven’t won in Tuscaloosa since 2003, and they haven’t even held a lead over Alabama since 2011.

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However, there is reason for some concern on Bama’s part. While it’s tough to know what exactly to expect from Tennessee, it has enough talent to make things interesting, especially coming off its comeback win over Georgia. Alabama handled Texas A&M’s spread offense last week, but Tennessee’s could be more problematic; you can’t expect the Volunteers to throw three pick-sixes like the Aggies did, and Joshua Dobbs poses a greater running threat than Kyle Allen. Dobbs had some success against the Tide last year, throwing for 192 yards and two touchdowns and running for 75 yards. But as long as Alabama doesn’t make any game-breaking mistakes itself, it should keep rolling and meet LSU on a five-game winning streak.

5. Top-10 teams try to avoid suffering season-derailing upsets

As mentioned above, every year some of the least intriguing weeks on the schedule produce some of the craziest results. So while top-10 teams Ohio State, Baylor, LSU and Michigan State are playing far inferior opponents this week, it might be more accurate to say they’re trying to avoid the chaos inherent in college football. The average point spread for the four games is 22.9 points, so it would qualify as a monumental upset if any of them lost, but it’s happened before. RememberOklahoma State-Iowa State in 2011?

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Michigan State (vs. Indiana) and LSU (vs. Western Kentucky) are probably most at risk. Until last week, the Spartans hadn’t been overly impressive this year, and the Hoosiers nearly knocked off Ohio State a few weeks ago. Meanwhile, led by quarterback Brandon Doughty, the Hilltoppers have the type of explosive offense that can put a serious scare in the Tigers. Should you bet on any of these upsets happening? Perhaps not. But don’t say you weren’t warned.