Week 9 College Football Preview: The Week Before the Week
Week 9 is an opening act. Week 9 is a kid brother. Week 9 is the junior-varsity game, starting at 5 p.m. Week 9 is trying out conversational tidbits in front of the mirror before the big date. (You guys do that too, right?) Week 9 is a house salad with vinaigrette dressing when you can smell the steak sizzling in the kitchen.
Week 9 is the week before the week.
I don’t have to tell you about Week 10. Week 10 has Alabama-LSU and four other humdingers between ranked opponents. We’ll get there. In the meantime, Week 9 looks a little bland on paper. But don’t sleep through Saturday; great things happen when we look the other way. The opening act we skipped turns out to be a young group called The Rolling Stones. The kid brother we ignored grows up to be Reggie Miller, or Shannon Sharpe, or George Brett. The junior-varsity game becomes a thrilling nailbiter, remembered by spectators long after the varsity team gets trounced on homecoming. The mirror turns out to be more conversational than the person across the table. The house salad is a delightful blend of vegetables made by a young group called The Rolling Stones. And Week 9, little ole Week 9, might have a surprise or two in store. Starting with:
THE BIG OLE GAME!
I think it’s safe to say that the Wildcats are the most unlikely 7-0 team in college football. They’re not the lowest-ranked of the undefeateds — that honor belongs to Houston. But they’re the only team from a major conference that seemed completely incapable of a perfect start when the year began. And what’s really great about Kansas State’s season is not just that it has won, but how it has won. Every challenging game on the schedule, plus one gimme, came down to the wire. It’s been a two-month near-death experience, but the Wildcats emerged on top every single time. Let’s run it down:
Week 1: The season got off to an inauspicious beginning with a narrow 10-7 win over Eastern Kentucky. Wildcats quarterback Collin Klein, who has produced efficient passing numbers and also leads the team with 670 rushing yards, threw a touchdown strike with less than two minutes remaining to help Bill Snyder’s believers escape at home.
Week 4: On the road at Miami, the Wildcats led 28-24 with 57 seconds remaining. The game came down to this 4th-and-goal:
I’m still not sure how Wildcats linebacker Tre Walker managed to keep Jacory Harris out of the end zone, but it stands as one of the best and most dramatic defensive plays of the season.
Week 5 : Kansas State trailed undefeated Baylor by nine points going into the fourth quarter, but this late interception by Arthur Brown set up a game-winning field goal and a 36-35 win.
Week 6: Three rushing touchdowns by Klein gave the Wildcats enough space to hold off a late comeback by Missouri and win 24-17.
Week 7: Trailing 28-20 on the road against one of the best offenses in the country, Kansas State clawed back in to the game again to beat Texas Tech 41-34. Klein was the star again, rushing for three touchdowns and throwing for another, but the defense managed to pick off Texas Tech’s Seth Doege twice in the fourth quarter to keep the Red Raiders offense at bay.
The accumulated wisdom from watching years of college football tells us that the new Miracle in Manhattan can’t last. If any team in the country is due for a reckoning game, it’s Kansas State. And if any team can deliver the fatal blow, it’s an angry Oklahoma crew coming off an unlucky loss against Texas Tech. The Sooners defense is respectable, allowing just 116 rushing yards per game and 237 yards in the air. Those numbers are enough to place them in the top half of the Big 12, but they’re not the spectacular marks of a national championship contender. If Kansas State can move the ball through the air — and that’s a big “if,” since Kansas State is last in the conference in passing yards and averages just 6.75 yards per attempt — it will be able to spread out the linebackers and inflict damage on the Sooners defense. But if the Wildcats can’t, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops will pack the box and make sure Klein is contained and ineffective.
On the other side of the ball, the situation is similar. Kansas State allows the second-fewest points per game in the Big 12 after Oklahoma, and particularly excels at stopping the run. The passing defense is less efficient, but has still maintained a 1:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Meshak Williams leads the team with six sacks on the season, and Nigel Malone has four interceptions. The success of Sooners’ QB Landry Jones will largely determine his team’s scoring output. Against Texas Tech and Baylor, Kansas State conceded a lot of points, but managed to make big plays against the opposing quarterback when it was necessary. That kind of defensive opportunism will need to continue if the Wildcats have a prayer on Saturday.
Even at home, the Wildcats are 13.5-point underdogs. The line seems a bit harsh, Oklahoma’s strength notwithstanding. Nothing will come easy, but then again, nothing has come easy all season. With luck, efficiency, and a big play or two, this is a winnable game for Kansas State. But without every one of those elements, the expected reckoning will tear through the other Manhattan.
Other Clashes of the Ranked
Just one this week:
No. 11 Michigan State at no. 14 Nebraska. Only a severe letdown can keep the Spartans from winning on the road against Nebraska and its undeserved ranking. Michigan State is a better team in every regard, but particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Even after absorbing the body blows against Wisconsin’s dynamic offense, Michigan State still allows just 13.7 points per game. Nebraska scores points against weak competition, but its 48-17 loss to Wisconsin is a better indicator of what should happen in Lincoln this weekend. Against the “good” teams on its schedule, Nebraska has allowed 38, 48, and 27 points, respectively. Kirk Cousins and the Spartans offense should score 35 points without breaking much of a sweat, and the Huskers’ run-first attack won’t fare well against the Michigan State front line. All signs point to a miserable game from Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, who will be pressured to gain yards through the air and who isn’t exactly lighting things up in that domain (7 TDs to 6 interceptions, 7.79 yards per attempt). Amazingly, Nebraska is favored by four points, which is sort of like Las Vegas mailing you free money. Wink wink.
A 1-2 week puts the upset watch at 7-11 straight up for the season, and 10-8 against the spread. Along with Michigan State-Nebraska, here are three more to watch in Week 9:
1. No. 25 West Virginia at Rutgers. Unfortunately, the upset landscape is particularly barren this week. “Slim pickings” doesn’t begin to describe it, and I’m not overly confident about any of these picks. I loved Rutgers a week ago, particularly considering its emphatic victory against Pittsburgh at home. And I’m still impressed with the Scarlet Knights defense, who have yet to allow 30 points and who have given up more than 20 just twice. But last week’s loss to Louisville is an unexpected black mark, and it highlights the weakness of the offense. The setback was a little unlucky, considering receiver Mark Harrison dropped the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter, but bad luck can’t disguise the fact that Rutgers gains just 92 yards per game on the ground. They’re near the bottom of the Big East in almost every offensive category, but are still undefeated at home. West Virginia is a reflected version of Rutgers, with a prolific offense and a porous defense that let the Mountaineers down terribly during last week’s embarrassment at Syracuse. At home, I see no reason why Rutgers can’t beat the 7-point spread.
2. Purdue at no. 18 Michigan. This is truly grasping at a straw. Even worse, the straw is made of powder. The Boilermakers beat a ranked Illinois team last week, but playing at the Big House against a good rushing offense and a staunch defense is a bit of a different animal. If they can limit Denard Robinson and the Michigan backs to around four yards per carry (Purdue has allowed 3.7 on the year), they could find themselves in a late dogfight. There are yards to be gained on the ground against Michigan, and Purdue needs to capitalize with running backs Ralph Bolden and Akeem Shavers, because they’re not equipped to do much damage in the air. The spread is 13.5 here, and the result will depend on how well Purdue can slow the game down and turn it into a grinding Big Ten grudge match devoid of big plays.
3. No. 22 Georgia at Florida. This is the upset I like best. After losses to Alabama, Auburn, and LSU, the shine is off the Gators in a big way. But before those games, there’s no way they would have been three-point underdogs to the Bulldogs on a neutral field (the game will be played in Jacksonville, Fla.). And frankly, what did anyone expect? Of course Florida was going to lose to Bama and LSU. Maybe the Auburn game was winnable, but facing the defending champions on the road is never easy. Now, at long, last, Florida is up against a reasonable opponent. And what has Georgia done to deserve its ranking? Beat Tennesee by 8? Beat Vanderbilt by 5? Sorry, not impressed. If you look at the respective passing and rushing defense numbers, the two teams are almost identical. Georgia has had more luck passing on offense, but again, it hasn’t had to play the elite of the SEC West. The Gators need to contain Aaron Murray, the Georgia QB who has put together a nice season, but that’s not an impossible task — just ask South Carolina or Boise State. On offense, the rotating cast of Florida QBs will find more gaps in the defense than they’ve seen in a month, and could well explode for 30+ points. For them, this game will feel like getting out of jail. If you thought the Gators were the best team in the SEC East a month ago, as I did, it’s worth resisting the temptation to eulogize them after a brutal October schedule.
The Most Significant Insignificant Game
Rice vs. no. 17 Houston. This is a perfect Thursday night game, because it lets us watch Case Keenum at work. You don’t necessarily want an emotional commitment on Thursdays. You want something easy and fun and stress-free. You’ve got a big weekend ahead. Keenum, who should be discussed more often as a Heisman candidate, now holds the all-time FBS record for most total offense in a career. He’s also five touchdowns shy of the all-time record, and he’ll have a legitimate shot to reach that mark against a Rice defense that can generously be described as “lacking.” As of now, Houston has the best scoring offense in the country, and there will be fireworks on display Thursday night.
The (Possibly Ignorant) Football Theory of the Week
The pooch punt on third-and-very-long is underused, and is a more effective way to pin an offense deep inside their own five-yard line than a traditional punt. Plus, you’d avoid those turnovers trying to gain 15 or more yards on an impossible third down. Plus, your quarterback would get that sweet punt yardage on his stat line. You know how all writers secretly want to be rock stars? All quarterbacks secretly want to be punters. I read it in a book.
The Energy Infusion Call
It’s back to Keith Jackson for this great moment from the first Miracle in Manhattan:
The Conference Rundown
Here are the best games, not previously mentioned, from the six major conferences.
ACC – No. 5 Clemson at Georgia Tech. Remember when the Yellow Jackets were still good? Like, two weeks ago? That was a simpler time. But make no mistake — at home, this is still a dangerous and frustrating offense. Clemson is among the worst teams in the ACC in rushing defense, allowing 4.6 yards per carry, and “rush” is the only word in Tech’s vocabulary. Both teams should score a lot of points, but this is a potential landmine for Clemson coach Dabo Swinney and the high-octane Tigers.
Big 12 – Baylor at no. 3 Oklahoma State. It was tempting to put this one on the upset watch list, but Baylor’s defense, particularly against the run, doesn’t inspire much confidence. And Oklahoma State showed in last weekend’s win against Missouri that it can run if the need arises. Still, this game will be fun on a number of levels. State’s offense is a beautiful organism that thrives at home, and Baylor’s Robert Griffin III is a Heisman candidate in search of a definitive moment. Only one can leave happy.
Big East – Syracuse at Louisville. Hey, the Cuse can become bowl eligible! (I should probably just leave the Big East out of this feature.)
Big Ten – Illinois at no. 19 Penn State. Oddly enough, the Nittany Lions are 4-0 in the Big Ten. If they keep winning, it’ll set up a showdown with Wisconsin on the last weekend of the season to determine who makes the Big Ten championship from the Leaders Division. I’m still not sold on a team that could only beat Indiana by six and Temple by four, but a win against Illinois would add another line of credibility to its resume.
Pac-12 – No. 6 Stanford at USC. The Trojans have still lost just a single game, and they played their best four quarters of the season last weekend against Notre Dame. And unlike the lone setback to Arizona State, this week’s Stanford test is at home. Essentially, we’re looking at a clash of two great passing offenses, both of which defend the run well enough that the ground game shouldn’t factor in. Stanford has allowed just five passing touchdowns on the season, but will have its hands full with USC quarterback Matt Barkley. The situation is worse for the Trojans, which will trot out the Pac-12’s third-worst passing defense in yards per game and might find it impossible to deal with Stanford’s Andrew Luck. Despite the undefeated record, there’s still not much hype surrounding the Cardinal, but they can amend that situation with a dominant win.
SEC – No. 13 South Carolina at Tennessee. There’s not much happening in the chosen conference with LSU and Alabama both on byes, but a win here for South Carolina would put it just a win away from making the SEC title game with only Arkansas and Florida remaining.
It’s the week before the week — enjoy the show.
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