Week 9 storylines: What to watch for in college football's biggest matchups

Can Florida beat Georgia to take control of the SEC East? Will Notre Dame avoid a big upset at Temple? Sizing up the top storylines to watch in Week 8.
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We said going into last week’s relatively unappealing slate of games to nevertheless expect excitement, and Week 8 ended up delivering on that promise: Clemson beat Miami so bad that Al Golden lost his job, USC blew away then No. 3 Utah, there were two four-overtime games (Arkansas-Auburn and Duke-Virginia Tech) and Georgia Tech gave us a wild last-second special teams-related ending for the second straight week.

While Week 9’s Saturday schedule includes just one matchup of ranked teams—just like Week 8—there could be more unexpected thrills in advance of a significant uptick in the number of big games in November. The Halloween slate includes an unexpected playoff elimination game and a major rivalry tilt. Here are five storylines to watch in Week 9:

1. Notre Dame faces a must-win against Temple to stay in playoff race

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You could forgive the Irish if they expected before the season for this matchup to be nothing more than a trap game between USC and Pitt. Nobody thought the Owls would be 7–0, one of three undefeated AAC teams (in addition to Houston and Memphis) threatening to crash the playoff. Now not only does Notre Dame suddenly face a legitimate test, but it has to play on the road in what should be a frenzied environment. This is the most high-profile game Temple has played in a long, long time.

The Irish need to win to stay in the playoff hunt, as it’s still too early to assume a two-loss team will have any shot of earning a bid. Notre Dame’s résumé, too, needs bolstering. Its only game against a current AP Top 25 team, Clemson, resulted in a loss, and Stanford is its only remaining opponent you can say with near certainty will finish the year ranked. In the end, it’s actually likely a welcome development that the Owls have emerged as a quality opponent. The Irish have a clear talent advantage, and yet a win would still count as a feather in their cap, especially if Temple can win out the rest of the way.

2. World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party should decide the SEC East

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The outlook here is pretty simple. Florida is 4–1 in the SEC, Georgia is 3–2. The Gators finish with Vanderbilt at home and South Carolina on the road, the Bulldogs with Kentucky at home and Auburn on the road. It would take some shocking results for the winner of this game not to end up the champion of the SEC East. That’s especially true for Florida, which would be two games up in the loss column on Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee with the tiebreaker over each.

The Gators are the definite favorite Saturday after a big question was answered in their last game, when Treon Harris played solidly at LSU in his first start after Will Grier was suspended. As long as Harris continues to limit his mistakes, Florida has the advantage over a Georgia team that, in its last three games, was blown out by Alabama, blew a big lead against Tennessee and barely got by Missouri. If Sony Michel finds traction against the tough Florida defense or Greyson Lambert rediscovers his early-season form, though, the Bulldogs will have a chance, and a Georgia win would hardly be the wildest thing to happen in this rivalry. The only thing we know for certain: Whoever wins on Saturday should be able to book a trip to Atlanta.

3. We’ll learn a lot more about how good Oklahoma State really is

One of the surprise undefeated teams this season, Oklahoma State, has a brutal finish ahead, with games against TCU, Baylor and Oklahoma in three of the final four weeks of the season. And yet that stretch has never looked more navigable. TCU’s defense is still a question, Baylor would seem more susceptible to an upset with Seth Russell’s season-ending injury and you can never count out an upset in the Bedlam game. Plus, the Cowboys get all three tough opponents at home.

The problem is we still don’t know how good Oklahoma State really is. It hasn’t lost, sure, but it required a monumental Texas punting error to top the Longhorns, it beat Kansas State on a last-minute field goal and it needed overtime to defeat West Virginia. This week’s game at Texas Tech will be a good litmus test. Winning at Lubbock can be tricky, and while Oklahoma State should be able to move the ball with ease, slowing the Red Raiders’ potent offense will be a challenge for the Cowboys’ defense. It’s still too early for Oklahoma State to dream of a Big 12 title or of crashing the playoff, but if it can put together a better all-around showing on Saturday, the Big 12 race will suddenly become a lot more interesting.

4. How will Michigan respond in first game after Michigan State loss?

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The loss to the Spartans was the gut punch of all gut punches, the type of defeat from which some teams may not be able to recover, at least for a couple weeks. All eyes will be on Minneapolis to see how Michigan responds. Will it be sluggish? Or will it be business as usual for the stingy Wolverines?

That Michigan is coming off a bye should help it keep its focus, as does the fact that the Wolverines still have plenty to play for. The finale against Ohio State is the only truly imposing game left on the schedule, and if Michigan manages to win out and the Buckeyes take care of Michigan State, the playoff rankings would decide which of the three would take the Big Ten East. Even if Michigan can’t end up winning its division, a strong finish is critical to ensuring that the momentum built up by its surprising start to the season isn’t lost. Saturday’s game against the Gophers will be the first indication one way or the other. Jerry Kill’s retirement this week for health-related reasons adds another element to the game: Minnesota will hope to honor its coach with a big win.

5. Can Washington State provide a real challenge to Stanford?

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That Washington State currently sits in second in the Pac-12 North stands as one of the season’s more unexpected developments. The Cougars were written off after losing to Portland State in their season opener, but they’ve won five of their last six, including victories at Oregon and at Arizona, and they remarkably would take control of the division with a win over the first-place Cardinal. This is a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2003, and its three conference wins this year are already more than it’s had in all but one season since 2008.

Is Washington State for real? Given Mike Leach’s Air Raid pedigree, you’d think the offense is legitimate, but the passing attack is only in the middle of the pack in the country efficiency-wise. WSU is second in passing yards per game, but that’s mostly because no other team has more pass attempts. Considering Washington State squeaked by Rutgers, Oregon and Arizona, it’s hard to believe the Cougars have a real shot at knocking off a Stanford team that has been rolling over all comers since falling to Northwestern in its season opener. Adapting to such a different style of offense, though, is often tricky, and at the very least the Cardinal will get much more of a test from Washington State than we thought a few weeks ago.