College football: Résumé-builders before first Playoff rankings highlight Week 9 games to watch
If teams want to make a good impression before the first College Football Playoff poll drops on Tuesday, it’s now or never.
Whether it’s a top contender jockeying for position to get as close to the top four as it can get or a team that is a little under the radar at the moment but is looking to make a splash, Week 9 holds opportunities aplenty.
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With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the best this upcoming slate of games has to offer:
No. 10 West Virginia at Oklahoma State | GameCenter
Saturday at noon ET on FOX
The Mountaineers continue to build up more and more believers each week, never more so than after their 34-10 throttling of TCU a week ago.
Of course, West Virginia’s own worst enemy as it prepares for its initial placement in the CFP rankings is its schedule. None of its six games to date have come against a team ranked at the time or currently, and that tradition will continue against the Cowboys on Saturday.
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However, both last week’s game against the Horned Frogs and this week’s feature opponents who were at one point held in high regards in the rankings and have shown a lot of improvement in recent weeks.
West Virginia probably won’t be able to completely silence the critics and cement its place as a legitimate Playoff contender until its late-season home games against Oklahoma and Baylor, but another decisive victory would be further proof that the Mountaineers are doing all they possibly can with the schedule they’ve been dealt.
On the flip side, Oklahoma State should have a very good opportunity to give the No. 10 team a lot of trouble in this one. The Cowboys offense has not really been stopped all season, so this is an interesting matchup against one of the nation’s best defenses.
In very fitting form, just about every Cowboys game has been a shootout this season. Against a West Virginia team that hasn’t allowed more than 17 points in the last three weeks, something has got to give. If Oklahoma State can make it a high-scoring affair, one has to like their chances at the upset and likely reemergence in the rankings.
No. 4 Washington at No. 17 Utah | GameCenter
Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1
Over the past two seasons, Utah is 10-1 at home and they are here to spoil Washington's title hunt pic.twitter.com/571ndmmg8i— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) October 26, 2016
Barring an absolute stunner in one of its final four regular-season games, this should be it for Washington until the Pac-12 Championship Game.
While Washington State, the final team on the Huskies’ schedule, is badly underrated, it’s still hard to envision anyone but the Utes standing in the way of Washington being a conference title game win away from heading to the Playoff with a perfect record.
That makes this essentially a playoff game for the Huskies. They have absolutely stormed through the Pac-12 after opening conference play with a sloppy, near-upset at Arizona. Since then, Washington has smashed Stanford, Oregon and Oregon State by a combined score of 155-44.
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Utah, on the other hand, is not a team that goes down easily. The Utes have built a reputation as a team that is always in the middle of a nail-biter. Of their eight games this year, five have been decided by a touchdown or less.
That will certainly be the key for Kyle Whittingham’s Utah team: keeping it close. Washington can get rolling like few teams in the nation and have only been on the ropes once this year, in the overtime win at Arizona.
If it comes to a point where the Huskies need to engineer a late scoring drive or come up with a big stop, who knows how they will react? And if Utah can pull it off, it enters a very intriguing Pac-12 South race with Colorado for a good shot at a New Year’s Six bowl.
No. 7 Nebraska at No. 11 Wisconsin | GameCenter
Saturday at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN
This one is going to be fun.
It’s put up or shut up time for Nebraska, which has one of the most difficult two-week stretches on the national schedule this year at Wisconsin and Ohio State.
Win both those games and the Cornhuskers should be a near lock for a Playoff spot as long as they look competent in the Big Ten Championship Game. Lose one and things become a lot murkier.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, is looking at a must-win game if there ever was one. The Badgers’ Big Ten West and Playoff hopes are entirely on the line here, as they have put together a very impressive squad this season but have come up just short of getting over the hump.
Seven-point losses to both Michigan and Ohio State have put the Badgers in a bit of a desperate spot with two losses in conference play. It’s certainly cruel that those losses count the same as any as far as the standings are concerned, but that’s the name of the game in college football.
Now, Wisconsin needs to win on Saturday and hope the Buckeyes get back on track next week to hand the Cornhuskers back-to-back losses. If that happens, Wisconsin would get the tiebreaker over Nebraska and likely control its own destiny to a division title. If not, the West is Nebraska’s for the taking.
With two excellent defenses butting heads at Camp Randall Stadium, expect it all to be laid on the line in this Big Ten clash.
No. 3 Clemson at No. 12 Florida State | GameCenter
Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on ABC
At times it has been in spite of itself, but Clemson keeps on winning. It doesn’t always have to be pretty, but the Tigers are doing what they have to do to return to the Playoff that they finished as the runner-up in a season ago.
Dabo Swinney’s team has turned it on when it needs to, winning at Auburn to open the season in what wasn’t at the time but is now clearly a big game and edging out Louisville in one of the season’s signature showdowns.
Given the strength of the Atlantic division in the ACC, it would be a remarkable achievement for Clemson to get through the regular season unbeaten. With games against Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Wake Forest and South Carolina on its schedule followed by a potential ACC Championship Game against North Carolina or Virginia Tech, that looks like a real possibility if the Tigers can survive this test.
It’s been hard to get a real read on this Florida State team, as it seems to fluctuate from week to week. One week it looks like a grind-it-out defensive team. The next Dalvin Cook is running all over the opponent and the Seminoles put up 50 points. Then, from time to time, they can’t get a stop to save their lives.
They’ll need to bring their A-game at home to bolster their shot at a New Year’s Six spot.
Meanwhile, Clemson is pretty likely to land a spot in the ACC Championship Game due to holding the head-to-head tiebreaker over Louisville, but a win here would just about put it on ice. But this is the same Clemson team that beat Troy by six points and would have lost to NC State last week if not for a short field goal try that went wide at the end of regulation.
It’s not the end of the world for whichever team loses the primetime matchup, but it certainly won’t be any less sweet to win it.
No. 8 Baylor at Texas | GameCenter
Saturday at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC
A lot of points should be scored in Austin as Texas looks for something, anything, to hang its hat on in Big 12 play.
Despite the Longhorns’ well-documented struggles, Baylor should be on high alert in this one. It’s never an easy achievement to come into Texas Memorial Stadium and walk away without a few bumps. Texas has looked like a different team at home versus on the road, beating Notre Dame and only losing by five to Oklahoma.
For all the grief West Virginia gets about its schedule, Baylor’s hasn’t been at all better, with its biggest win coming at home against Oklahoma State. And while beating this year’s Longhorns team wouldn’t do much to pad that strength of schedule, it might present the Bears with a much-needed workout.
No. 15 Auburn at Mississippi | GameCenter
Saturday at 7:15 p.m. ET on SEC Network
Ole Miss can get pity points all season along for being ridiculously better than its 3-4 record suggest, but at some point it has to earn the recognition.
Yes, the Rebels are a good team. And yes, it’s a rare situation where their four losses came against Florida State, Alabama, Arkansas and LSU, all excellent squads.
But it’s time for Ole Miss to earn some respect. It finally dropped out of the AP Top 25 after falling under .500, and its schedule doesn’t get any easier against a resurgent Auburn team coming off a 56-3 trouncing of Arkansas.
The Tigers might already be looking ahead to its Nov. 26 Iron Bowl appointment at Alabama in a game that could very well decide the SEC West. But Gus Malzahn’s team has to take care of its business until then, and that starts with a challenge in Oxford.